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Labour 2007

  LEGACY OF THE ABORTION ACT --   40 YEARS ON!

By Sir Patrick Duffy, Ph. D.

Forty years ago Parliament passed the Abortion Act. It permitted abortions where two doctors had certified in good faith that a continuation of the pregnancy would be more damaging than its termination. Doctors were allowed to make this judgement on four grounds:  risk to the mother’s life; risk to her physical or mental health of her existing children; or the likelihood that the baby would be born with a serious handicap.

40 Years of Shame.

  • The Bill’s exponents made a number of claims.  First, that the law would not bring about an undue increase in the number of terminations; second, that it would not lead to abortion on demand; and third, that it would close down back-street abortionists.  Forty years on it is instructive to look at how far those claims are justified. In 1968, first, 22,000 legal abortions were performed in England and Wales. Since then more than 6 million babies have lost their lives, and over 200,000 are aborted in Britain each year, not counting the pregnancies terminated by “morning after” pills. As for the assurance, second, that there would be no abortion on demand, more than 90% of terminations are now sanctioned on the basis that the mother’s physical or mental health is threatened, the usual code for convenient terminations.  Third, exaggerated stories about back-street abortions which bore no relation to fact were a key figure pro-action propaganda at the time.  Long afterwards, the Bill’s sponsor, David Steel, could only claim that back-street abortionists “had been killing between 30 and 50 women every year”.  (THE DAILY TELEGRAPH. 21.10.97).  By no means the same attention is now being paid to the recent report of an inquiry by the ‘Confidential Enquiry into Maternal & Child Health’ into doctor reports that up to 50 babies are born alive every year after botched National Health Service abortions.  (THE SUNDAY TIMES. 9.11.05).  there IS no evidence of an accompanying decline in the number of unwanted children:  illegitimacy rates have risen fourfold, reports of abuse and neglect have soared. The Act may have done away with back-street abortions, but it has done so by replacing them with high-street, sometimes lunchtime, abortions.                 

Medical Research.

  • There is a general feeling that things have got out of hand; that abortion has turned into an industry and become a racket.  The Act has arguably failed, and a rethink is plainly overdue as medical research increases our understanding of how babies develop in the womb. Almost every month medical research or horrifying news stories strengthen the call for a tightening of Britain’s abortion laws.  A study by the University of Oslo, published in the BMC Medicine in December 2005, comparing the effect on women of miscarriages and abortion, offers a case in point. Although miscarriage cause more mental distress in the 6 months after the loss of a baby, the negative effects of abortion last much longer. Extensive research carried out in New Zealand and published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry in January. 2006, found that abortion could trigger depression and other psychological illnesses in women even when there was no previous record of mental illness. In a letter to THE TIMES (27.10.06) a barrister and 14 of Britain’s most senior obstetricians and psychiatrists have highlighted the long term risk that abortion poses for women’s health. They argue that there is now a clear link between abortion and mental illness in women with no previous history of psychological problems, and that it is no longer acceptable for the medical profession to “play down” the risks to women.
  • “We suggest the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and Royal College of Psychiatrists revise their guidance and that future abortion notifications clearly distinguish between physical and mental grounds for abortion “, the letter says.
  • A further call on the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists to develop their own guidelines is contained in the report published in November, 2006, by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, which testifies to medicine’s much greater ability to keep alive those born well before full-term. Recent sophisticated ultra-sound pictures, by Professor Stuart Campbell of the Create Clinic in London, have also helped to revive abortion as a political issue. Dr. Campbell insists that he is not against abortion, but admits that his work has profoundly changed his views on the rights of the unborn child.

Polarisation of abortion.

  • Perhaps the most significant development has been the dramatic fall in the age of the viability of the unborn child. Why then did the House of Commons reject a call to lower the 24 week cut-off point to 21 weeks on October 31st. 2006?  The Bill was introduced as a 10 minute rule Bill by Nadine Dorries, Conservative MP for Mid-Bedfordshire. She raised recent findings, one of which suggests that the unborn can feel pain at about 21 weeks, though some experts point to an earlier age. Indicating also the very procedures involved in late abortions, she reminded the House that some 3,000 late abortions are actually carried out in this horrendous manner each year.  In addition, she called for a ten-day cooling-off period before an abortion could take place. She observed that in Western Australia abortion rates have dropped since a cooling-off period coupled with counselling was introduced in 1998. Foreseeing objections, she added that a ten-day cooling-off period need not necessarily mean that a woman waiting for an abortion would have to wait ten days longer than before. Her waiting time could be cut by ten days to avoid that effect.

Pro-choice means no choice.

  • We have seen that abortion was originally urged through parliament to prevent women resorting to backstreet abortionists. Soon, however, it became the default option for any unwanted pregnancy, irrespective of circumstances. Now we have a situation where radical feminism upholds abortion as the right thing to do in a growing number of circumstances. Any restriction is seen as a violation of the privacy and civil rights of women. A process intended to give a woman ‘control’ over her own fertility is now abused very often by irresponsible men who are only too ready to steer their girl-friends towards the nearest abortion clinic. Women have a very tough decision to make, and are deserving of the utmost sympathy. But given the opportunity to ‘take control’  of their bodies, how many are now colluding in a frivolous assault on them?  Yet MPs indicated recently no desire to reopen the question of abortion, despite evidence among them of growing unease about abortion rules. (THE ECONOMIST. 11.11.06).  Why, we may ask, does Parliament continue to shy away from it? One explanation is that MPs are nervous of moral questions, and even more nervous of their colleagues who are prepared to grapple with them.
  • The more morally challenging or practically complicated a subject, the greater the temptation to stop thinking about it. Abortion is morally challenging an d practically complicated. It is hard to argue, however, that the huge advances in embryology do not warrant further reflection. Such a study would immediately indicate that the recent refusal to lower the timetable for legal terminations leaves Britain with the highest legal limit in Europe. Why the difference, especially with such neighbouring countries as France and Germany?

Moral blindness.

  • Does the explanation lie in the cultural change ushered in by the 1967 Act? Has 40 years of abortion on demand eroded our most basic moral sense? For nearly 2,000 years of Christian civilisation, taking the life of an unborn child was regarded as a vile moral offence which degraded humanity. When an abortion was done to save the life of a mother or to prevent a woman from the consequences of rape, those responsible, including the doctors, acted in consciousness that a grave moral decision was involved. The 1967 Act dramatically changed social and individual attitudes. It was the outcome of a long campaign by a persistent pressure group which was concerned not only to prevent the physical risks of illegal abortion, but to give women the right to choose, after a pregnancy had begun, whether to bear the child. Even so, the idea that a woman had anything like an unqualified right to have the baby removed would have been wholly unacceptable to both parliament and public in 1967. Mr. Steel gave an undertaking therefore that his Bill would not open the door to abortion on request. On that understanding, it was passed. The view of parliament and public in 1967 was that every abortion is a grave question of fundamental morality. Today, in the light of Ms. McCafferty’s stance, it is simply a matter of amoral social convenience. Has society become, in some respects, morally desensitised and ill equipped  to grapple with abortion?