8 August 1996
The abortion controversy
Ellie Lee looks at the current abortion furore
The news that earlier this month a woman had one of twin fetuses aborted
generated a storm of discussion. Media pundits, commentators and medical
experts have declared that the operation, carried out in Queen Charlotte's
hospital in west London, was an ethical and moral quagmire. There is in
fact no quagmire in this case. If a woman chooses to have one or more fetuses
aborted that should be her prerogative and hers alone.
Anti-abortion groups rose as one in outrage. This should come as no surprise
as they are opposed to all abortions, but in this instance they changed
tack and thus became central to the discussion. They presented themselves
as 'pro-women' and 'pro-child' groups and not anti-abortion groups. They
offered the anonymous woman over £50 000 not to go through with the
abortion (despite the fact that it had taken place at least four weeks previously).
They expressed great sympathy with her plight and the mental health both
of her and of the remaining child.
The idea of paying a woman to go through a pregnancy she is not happy with
is distasteful enough. Worse still is the manner that organisations such
as Life and the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) have
suggested that they alone have the best interests of the woman at heart.
By doing so they have made palatable their real aims - to place the 'rights'
of the fetus above those of the mother.
The anti-abortionists agenda has been made easier by the equivocation of
the 'pro-choice' lobby. Rather than defend without question the personal
choice of a woman to end an unwanted pregnancy many raised ethical and moral
questions to which, for them, there was no easy answer. The ethical and
moral questions came down in practice to a refusal to support the woman's
decision. These questions were first raised in an interview (on another
topic) with the obstetrician in this case Professor Phillip Bennett. While
saying he was anti-abortion, he admitted carrying out abortions but acknowledged
the problems that the case raised.
The controversy centred on the fact that the aborted fetus was one of two.
Yet as Dr Vivienne Nathanson of the British Medical Association pointed
out, there was nothing to make this case different from any other abortion
carried out on a 16 week old fetus. Yet many commentators claimed that the
remaining twin would suffer trauma, as would the mother when she saw 'half
a pregnancy' running around in later life. The trauma claim is based on
the fact that twins form deep and lasting relationships in the womb. This
idea gives credibility to the notion that the fetus has consciousness and
is sentient. This is patently not the case as emotions and feelings can
only develop in an interactive relationship with other people and an environment
that is far more extensive than the womb. As regards the mother, we must
assume that she is capable of living with her decision, as others do every
The issue of selective reduction has also given many the jitters, even those
who claim to support a woman's right to choose. The spectre of 'Nazi-style
eugenics' has been raised time and time again as pro- and anti-abortion
groups question 'which twin'? and 'who decides'?. The slippery slope argument
is used to suggest that the next step is sex selection, hair colour, eye
colour...the list goes on. The tiniest excuse, so the argument goes, will
soon be enough for an abortion.
This dim view of humanity, and especially of women, inevitable leads to
calls for greater regulation of the abortion law. If people will use abortion
to create a 'super-race' then a third party must step in to control and
issue guidelines as to what is and is not acceptable. Thus credibility is
given to the anti-abortionists' case. Women cannot be left alone to make
a choice, not even in consultation with their doctors as is the case under
A number of legal injunctions were taken out by anti-abortion groups in
order to prevent the abortion taking place and to restrict the current law.
These are akin to the Jehovah's Witnesses taking out injunctions to prevent
others having blood transfusions and are a sign that those who are opposed
to abortion will stop at nothing to impose their views on women seeking
In response to this discussion we need to consistently uphold one principle.
A woman should be able to end unwanted pregnancies when and as she sees
fit. Her desires and hers alone are the only ones that matter.
In this sense we should greet the advent of the technique that allows one
twin to be aborted as good news. The fact that it gives women who are pregnant
with twins the opportunity to have a single child is a positive step. The
fact that more women know that this operation is available can only be good
Some commentators have argued that this case shows that abortion is available
on demand in Britain. In fact, this case proves the opposite. The fact that
this case has proved so controversial indicates that what a woman wants
in relation to her pregnancy is still entirely secondary to other concerns.
Only when her wishes are seen as the only thing that counts will we see
an end to the regressive kind of debate that has taken place this week.
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