If the anti-abortion movement took a tenth of the energy they put into noisy theatrics and devoted it to improving the lives of children who have been born into lives of poverty, violence, and neglect, they could make a world shine. ~Michael Jay Tucker
I’ve noticed that everybody that is for abortion has already been born. ~Ronald Reagan
As most of you will know, Norm runs a regular, Friday feature on his site profiling individual bloggers. One of the standard questions to interviewees reads:
Is there a major political or moral issue about which you have changed your mind?
It’s probably the only question that I could answer without a second thought. Where abortion is concerned, it seems I’ve held every possible view, from total opposition, to unconditional support for termination in just about any circumstances, and everything in between. Sometimes, all in the same day.
I’m not a lawyer, but my understanding is that, strictly speaking, abortion remains illegal; the 1967 Abortion Act simply provided a legal defence to those performing abortions. This sounds like semantics. In fact, it is semantics, but the law framed this way nevertheless provides some comfort as I try to reconcile my support for a form of abortion rights with a disturbing and personally ineluctable conclusion that these rights defy logic and obliterate a fundamental moral principle.
I cannot completely ignore the illogic of an arbitrary time limit within which a woman’s right of control over her own body and everything in it is considered pretty much inviolable, but beyond which the termination of her foetus is legally classified as infanticide. Additionally, I cannot, in all conscience, rationalize a start to life occurring at any time other than conception. This should preclude the possibility that I could ever support abortion in any form, and yet I do. The intrinsic, undeniable logic sustaining mainstream anti-abortion argument may be infallible, but we humans are not and I interpret the existing law, which doesn’t alter the strictly illegal status of abortion, as an attempt to square this circle.
Notwithstanding the above, I am firmly of the view that our existing abortion law needs to be amended. Officially, abortion can only be sanctioned on health, economic or social grounds; on the face of it, more restrictive than the majority of our EU partners where abortion on demand exists for the first trimester only. The reality is that UK law effectively sanctions abortion on demand at any time before 24 weeks (dominant medical opinion being that a majority of foetuses are independently viable at this stage of gestation), compared with, say, France, which time limits abortion at 12 weeks. Additionally, in England and Wales there is legal provision for abortion beyond 24 weeks where two doctors agree the child would be severely disabled and/or where full term gestation threatens the mother’s life. More on this later.
Figures for 2004 show that only 1.8% of the more than 185,000 abortions carried out in England and Wales that year took place between 20-24 weeks (that’s very nearly 3,000 foetuses that are viable or near-viable ex utero). Around 88% of abortions happen within 12 weeks. So the argument against changes in the law runs something like: why change the law when so few abortions happen after 20 weeks? The obvious counter-argument being: why should abortion law extend beyond, say, 18, or even 12 weeks, to accommodate so few abortions? Specifically, how many of today’s 20-24 week abortions wouldn’t be performed before an 18 week limit if this is all the law permitted? What message does a 24 week limit send to the small demographic that uses abortion as a form of contraception? If we can amend that message without impacting the choice of 9 out of 10 women seeking an abortion each year (using the 88% within 12 weeks figures), shouldn’t we do just that?
It was 1918 before propertied women over 30 got the franchise, but it wasn’t until 10 years later that suffrage was extended to all women over 21, giving them the same voting rights as men. I don’t know how many women participated in the general election of 1929, but each vote cast represented a personal victory for the women in question who for so long had struggled to acquire rights that should have been their’s at birth. There are those who speak of abortion rights in the same terms, as if each act of abortion were somehow redolent of the (near-)total emancipation of 21st century womankind. My fear is that in some circles, abortion is no longer regarded as the personal tragedy that it once was. The danger that society could ever allow abortion to become au courant, is upon us. No right-thinking person wants to see a return to stigmatizing and ostracizing of those women who have had abortions, but nor should we regard the exercising of this right as the medical equivalent of voting in a local election.
So cards on the table, I would support a reduction in the abortion time limit from 24 to 13 weeks, in line with most of our western European partners.
Whatever I feel about the unsuitably of a 24 week limit, it is as nothing compared with my dismay at what our law will permit beyond the start of the third trimester. Section 1(1)d of the UK’s 1967 Abortion Act provides for legal termination beyond 24 weeks (in fact, without time limit up to birth) to protect the health of the mother and where two doctors can agree that there is “substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.” This would be bad enough were “seriously handicapped” restricted to congenital illnesses and conditions such as spina bifida, advanced downs syndrome, etc.. But a cleft-palate? The state sanctions the termination of viable foetuses, potentially full-term foetuses, for a cleft-palate?
I am decidedly uncomfortable about any legislation that prescribes the termination of foetuses beyond the point of ex utero viability in any circumstances other than where there is a direct threat to the well-being of the mother. However, my main objection to the existing post-24 week law is the inequitable protection provided to the able and disabled unborn respectively. The law’s formulation is inherently discriminatory in this regard.
Here’s what the Disability Rights Commission says about Section 1(1)d of the UK’s 1967 Abortion Act:
“The Section is offensive to many people; it reinforces negative stereotypes of disability and there is substantial support for the view that to permit terminations at any point during a pregnancy on the ground of risk of disability, while time limits apply to other grounds set out in the Abortion Act, is incompatible with valuing disability and non-disability equally.”
“In common with a wide range of disability and other organisations, the DRC believes the context in which parents choose whether to have a child should be one in which disability and non-disability are valued equally.”
In many ways, I could stomach legislation that provided for legal termination at any point prior to birth better than I can tolerate law which provides for this only in the case of disability that the courts have demonstrated includes, but is by no means restricted to, cleft-palates. If this is not eugenics, then it comes very close.
I would point out that the percentage of abortions taking place after 24 weeks is tiny. The BBC reports that in 2002, there were 110 abortions post-24 weeks in England and Wales out of a total of 185,000 for the year. But again, my concern is the message that accompanies the practice.
Lastly, and notwithstanding my thoughts above, I make no judgment, moral or otherwise, about any woman who avails herself of the legal right to seek an abortion, at whatever time and for whatever reason. I can raise concerns about certain aspects of the law as it currently stands and I will continue to do so, but equally I deplore the pro-life activists who picket abortion clinics to hector (and worse) extremely vulnerable women and, in some cases, mere girls as they prepare themselves for what will be one of the most traumatic experiences they may ever face in life. I disassociate myself from such ghouls entirely.
That said, we ought to understand that there are implications if young women are conditioned to believe that a 24-week limit on what is effectively abortion on demand is acceptable, and that this, too, can be waived in the case of severe foetal abnormality. Implications not just for the women directly involved, but society itself, our attitudes towards disability and the disabled and the value we attach to all human life.
Keep abortion rights, but change the law, change attitudes and change the statistics that are a stain on the conscience of any society that dares to call itself ‘civilised’. Nearly 200,000 abortions a year in England and Wales, countries where, with a few exceptions, access to multiple forms of contraception is as widespread as it ever could be, is anything but ‘civilized’.