Defending abortion rights

Issue section: 

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the private member's bill which led to the Abortion Act of 1967, allowing abortion up to 28 weeks of pregnancy, that was lowered to 24 weeks in 1990 by the Human Fertilisation Act.

The 1967 act ended 164 years of misery for women with unwanted pregnancies. In 1803 abortion was made a capital offence, after centuries when abortion had been legal until foetal movements could be felt. Countless women died agonising deaths as a result of illegal abortion. Fear of prosecution prevented them from seeking medical help. Since the act came into force, the number of abortions each year in Britain has increased from 54,819 in 1969 to 193,000 in 2006. One in three women in Britain can now expect to have an abortion.

The Abortion Act gave women control over their bodies. This anniversary is to be celebrated. For the first time women's sexuality could be decoupled from childbearing. Restrictive abortion laws hit the poor hardest. Affluent women have always been able to access safer abortion by paying for it or by travelling abroad.

Despite the Act, we cannot afford to rest on our laurels. There is continuous pressure from "pro-life" groups to restrict access to abortion. In 2005 nine anti-choice organisations banded together to form Alive and Kicking. They claim that scientific advances have increased survival rates for prematurely born babies so the upper time limit for legal abortion should be revised down. However, statistics show that the viability of premature babies born below 24 weeks gestation has not changed since 1995. Only 11 percent of babies born below 24 weeks gestation survive and many of these are severely disabled. At 21 weeks the survival rate is zero.

Viability is an emotive issue which draws the argument away from women's rights. In 2006 only 2 percent of abortions in Britain took place after 20 weeks gestation; 89 percent took place before 13 weeks. Late abortions occur if there is a severe foetal abnormality previously undiagnosed. They are also more common among the vulnerable and very young, who may not realise or may be in denial that they are pregnant. Older women can be caught out and mistake pregnancy for the menopause. Should these women be forced to continue with unwanted pregnancies, or consigned to the horrors of the backstreet if the legal limit is reduced?

The anti-abortion lobby also argue that the foetus can feel at 21 weeks. They cite the 4D ultrasound "moving images" pioneered by Stuart Campbell of St George's Hospital in London. Campbell has said that "between 20 and 24 weeks we watch as [the foetuses] seem to smile, cry and frown". The Daily Telegraph sensationally reported this under the headline "Don't tear a smiling foetus from the womb".

Yet again scientific evidence does not support their arguments. Maria Fitzgerald, Professor of Developmental Neurology at University College London, says "The 4D images are unhelpful and completely misunderstood. There is very good evidence that foetuses go through a series of pre-programmed movements that look like stretches and yawns. People infer upon them a lot of emotional baggage, but it doesn't mean that the foetus is conscious or feeling things like you or I would."

A newly published report from the parliamentary Science and Technology Committee of MPs agreed that the 24-week upper limit for abortions should be kept, that it should only be necessary for one doctor to sign the form allowing abortion rather than the current requirement for two, and that suitably trained midwives and nurses should be allowed to provide early abortion services.

The latter two points improve access and minimise delay - essential if women are to have the option of a medical abortion which must be carried out by nine weeks gestation. Women prefer medical abortions, as they do not involve anaesthetic or surgery.

This looks like good news.

However, a survey carried out for Alive and Kicking in 2005 stated that, out of 154 MPs questioned, 63 percent thought that the 24 week upper limit should be reduced. This compares with only 37 percent in 2004.

Conservative MP Nadine Dorries presented a bill to parliament last year, to reduce the upper limit to 21 weeks. It was defeated, but Dorries has re-presented the bill, reducing the time limit even further, to 20 weeks. She has also introduced a clause requiring a cooling off period after a woman's first visit to the doctor, to seek advice and counselling. This would add further delay and so deny many women their preferred option of medical abortion.

As socialists we must oppose any attempt to make abortion laws more restrictive, and work hard to move the focus of debate away from emotive, unscientific evidence and put the emphasis squarely on women's rights. We must demand safe, accessible, legal abortion. Restrictive abortion laws do not mean fewer abortions, but merely drive them to the backstreets.

Jackie Turner is a GP in London.