Friday, October 27, 2006

Safe, legal and on demand

Next Tuesday Nadine Davies, a Tory MP will be bringing forward a bill to reduce the time limit within which abortion is legal, from 24 to 21 weeks. If you haven’t read it, Zoe Williams’ response is excellent.

Personally, I find this a very simple issue. It is absolutely none of my business whether or not someone chooses to have an abortion, it is none of Nadine Davies’ business either and the only person whose opinion should matter on whether or not to terminate a pregnancy should be the woman who is pregnant and anyone who she chooses to consult.

The tactics of the people who organise the campaign to ban abortion are based on experience elsewhere – picking issues where they are likely to be able to attract support from people who wouldn’t support a full ban, organising to lobby decision-makers and chipping away in different ways at the right to choose to have an abortion. Since every foetus develops at a different rate, an arbitrary time limit which tries to identify ‘viable’ foetuses in law is, in medical terms, nonsense. And a time limit should be, surely, just as irrelevant for pro-life people who think that a time limit sanctions murdering babies as it is for people who support abortion on demand. Nor will a reduction from 24 to 21 weeks alter significantly the number of abortions, as fewer than 2% of abortions are late term abortions.

I think it would be a healthy development if the debate about abortion shifted away from being mainly a matter of legislation and lobbying MPs. A theoretical right to have an abortion up to 24 weeks is little help for women if the local NHS has policies which are intimidating and obstructive, especially for women who cannot afford to go private. Genuine concern about reducing the number of late term abortions does not involve changing the law (which would achieve little or nothing in practice), but instead involves making it easier to terminate a pregnancy within 12 weeks. Reducing the 1,000 or so pregnancies terminated each year because the child would be at risk of having disabilities is best done by improving help and support for disabled children and their families and challenging prejudices against disabled people, not by passing laws restricting access to abortion.

Shifting the debate in this way would help split the anti-abortion activists, a tiny minority, from the millions of people who believe that human life begins at conception, for reasons of religious faith or other, but who don’t currently seek to impose that view on anyone else, or decide who to vote for on this issue. Whatever the temptations of trying to make support for the right to choose an abortion a requirement for Labour representatives, or denouncing people who are pro-life on religious grounds as misogynists, all that would be achieved would be to swell the ranks of the anti-abortion activists. People can think what they want on this as long as they don’t try to impose their views on others, and identifying and addressing the specific issues which the anti-abortion people are trying to exploit is a better way to win people over then telling them that they are bigots.


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