Choice and control

Glenys ThorntonGlenys Thornton on the government's whittling tactics against women's reproductive rights

In one week new Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has said he would favour a change in the law to halve the limit on abortions from 24 weeks into a pregnancy to 12 weeks and Equalities minister, Maria Miller has called for a reduction to 20 weeks. One has to wonder what is going on here.

When the Health Secretary expresses his views on health matters it is not idle chat about personal views. He is the person responsible for the NHS, including how it provides for matters such as reproductive choices faced by women. It is particularly pertinent when he cites scientific evidence and then does not produce it. Experience of anti-abortionists tells us that this is what they say to justify their prejudices.

Mr Hunt is of course entitled to his personal views about abortion, however everyone else is entitled to know how these views will affect public policy, decisions about how public money is spent, how public and reproductive health is organised and to whom it is made available.

David Cameron has said that his government has got no plans to bring forward any legislation in this area and any vote that does happen will be a free one, but that he "personally" favoured a "modest reduction" from the current 24 week limit. This is clearly a signal that some kind of bargaining is going on.

No woman ever would want to have a termination, and everyone would like to see the number of terminations reduced. However the choice must be there and it must be safe.

The facts about late abortions are that the vast majority of terminations (91%) take place before 12 weeks; and there have been no recent advances in neonatal care that make a foetus born before 24 weeks more likely to survive (foetal lungs are too immature to respond adequately to the most sophisticated mechanical ventilation). The percentage of abortions between 20 and 24 weeks is 1.4%, and only 0.01% after that point. Indeed, since the early 1970s, the number of late abortions has tended to fall and those obtained early to rise. The decision of Parliament in 1990 to reduce the upper limit for almost all abortions from 28 to 24 weeks has had no effect on these trends.

It is women themselves and not the law that determine when abortions are done. They request abortion with considerable regret as soon as they are sure the pregnancy is unwanted. This is usually before nine weeks. Later requests are made when only when there has been delay in recognising the pregnancy, personal circumstances change unexpectedly or the foetus is discovered to be malformed.

Jeremy Hunt and Maria Miller are the latest in a dishonourable line of opponents of a woman's right to choose who skulk behind mendacious misrepresentation of supposed medical advances and purport to be concerned only about time limits. We need an unequivocal statement from the government saying on the record that it has no intention of changing the existing arrangements.

We must not be misled by this whittling tactic against reproductive rights. The purpose of these attacks is to render abortion illegal, and, as is evident from all countries where this law applies, to create a two-tier world. The wealthy have always been able to procure terminations, and the poor die from back street botched abortions as they did before 1967.

Baroness Glenys Thornton is Labour’s Shadow Equalities Minister in the Lords

Published 11th October 2012

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