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20 January 1998

Not one doctor but none

Carrie Clarke argues for treating abortion like any other medical procedure

The ongoing row about abortion provision in Britain has broken out again. This time, however, it's pro-choice, not anti-abortion opinion setting the agenda. Frank Dobson the Health Secretary, has said he would support liberalising the abortion law to allow abortions to take place with the consent of one doctor, rather than the two that existing law demands.

His announcement makes a change. It comes as something of a surprise to see a Labour MP prepared to put his head above the parapet and depart from the 'no comment' approach to the abortion issue we have witnessed from their (particularly women) MPs of late.

However the proposal for one doctor, not two, still fails to resolve the fundamental problem with the Abortion Act, which is why should women have to gain permission to have an abortion at all? Changing the law to one doctor would if anything bring it in line with what is now common practice (which is presumably one reason why Dobson has said what he has). It is more often than not the case that obtaining a second doctor's signature for abortion is a formality for women seeking abortion. This is especially the case given the greater role played by private sector and not-for-profit clinics in providing abortion to women. So the call for one doctor in reality would not be that different to what we have already in many parts of the country.

The real matter at stake is why is abortion treated unlike any other medical procedure in the law? We don't need permission from doctors for other operations we need. Why should women have to obtain this when it comes to abortion? Abortion services should be designed in such a way that best meets women's needs when faced with unwanted pregnancy. What else makes sense? From this point of view, there is no reason why women should have to gain the say-so of anybody else to their request for abortion. Women know their own minds and can assess better than anybody else whether continuing a pregnancy or ending it is the most appropriate course of action. The only law that is therefore really in line with what women need is no law. There should be no special requirements laid down by Parliament to regulate women's access to ending unwanted pregnancy.

Having said this, I hope Frank Dobson gets his proposal discussed in Parliament. It would be good to have the issue aired on pro-choice terms for the first time since 1967. However to get there he needs a back-bench sponsor for a Bill. The names mentioned to date are John Austin MP (Labour) and Theresa Gorman MP (a Conservative). It's striking that so far New Labour women are hardly champing at the bit to take on the issue. In fact the only comment so far from this group has been a column in one national newspaper calling for the existing legislation to be tightened. You might think at least some of them would jump at the opportunity to do something progressive on an issue so much at the heart of women's freedom. Yet for these women it seems that the 'A' word remains as unmentionable now as before the Abortion Act was passed. Perhaps we should learn the lesson that when it comes to actually changing things for the better it's how much bottle you have, not your gender, that ultimately makes the difference.

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