LM Comment
  2:45 am GMT
Current Archive Subscribe
Comment LM Search Archives Subject index Links Overview FAQ Toolbar
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 day.

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 British law.

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 abortions.

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 news.

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.
Join a discussion on this commentary



Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk