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27 October 1997

Abortion: No Limits On Women's Choice

October 27 is the 30th anniversary of the 1967 Abortion Act. Carrie Clarke argues that the best abortion law would be none at all

One of the most striking things about the discussion of the 1967 Abortion Act is the marginality of the case for banning abortion. The anti-abortion lobby has been campaigning ever since the passing of the Act for abortion to be made illegal in all circumstances. While this argument has never had much support, it seems more outlandish than ever in 1997. The notion that it is acceptable to compel all women who find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy to bear a child has little resonance with anybody. Most people recognise that women would find ways to get abortions anyway, either resorting to unsafe, illegal abortions or travelling abroad. The prospect of a return to the days of 'back-street' abortion is sufficient to mean most accept the legalisation of the procedure. In addition, the idea that children should be wanted, and pregnancy should be planned is now widely accepted. Parents are expected to be able to care adequately for their offspring - motherhood is not seen as an option that should be 'taken lightly', and hence abortion is accepted as preferable to an unwanted child.

It is safe to say therefore that there is no serious prospect of an attempt being made to make abortion illegal. This is not to say that the discussion of abortion law reform is off the agenda however. The idea has been proposed to liberalise the law - an idea that may get taken seriously. The proposition from pro-choice campaigners is that the law should be amended to allow for 'abortion on request' in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy, with the permission of one doctor rather than two as the current law demands.

The motivation on the part of the pro-choice lobby to liberalise the law arises from a recognition of the real restrictions current abortion law places on women's choice. Under the current law, women need the consent of two doctors to their request for abortion, and have to meet one of the criteria laid out in the Abortion Act. These criteria are detailed in Abortion should be an election issue in LM97.

Pro-choice campaigners want the law to be changed. However it is questionable that a law which gives women abortion on request in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy represents a step forward. Firstly it is not the case in practice that women cannot get abortions in early pregnancy easily. The majority of doctors accept that abortions at this point in pregnancy should be allowed, and make it easy for women to meet the criteria demanded by the law. In this sense the call for abortion on request in the first trimester amounts to little more than a recognition of the status quo, rather than a major change in abortion provision. Secondly the idea that a request for abortion before twelve weeks should be treated differently to one afterwards - at 13, 16 or 19 weeks - is a very problematic idea that could generate a law which is in fact worse than the current one.

The notion that there need to be time limits restricting access to abortion is a constant feature of the abortion debate. In the minds of those who support a time limit, the idea exists that women might continue with unwanted pregnancy, opting for abortion at a late stage for no 'good' reason. Legal time limits on abortion mark a restriction on choice, implying that without this imposition women will make 'irresponsible' choices. Time limits presume that without reigning in the freedom to choose abortion, women will make flippant decisions. Any progressive change in the law would challenge this idea and recognise that women do not need to be regulated from on high in their decisions about when and in what circumstances they can terminate a pregnancy. Making the decision about abortion is not an abstract moral question that should be fixed and controlled by time limits. Rather for the pregnant woman it is practical question about whether she wants to carry a pregnancy through and bear a child - a question she needs total freedom to decide on. If anything, a law which legitimises early abortion, but says nothing about second or third trimester abortion, problematises later abortion to a greater extent than the current law.

The example of European countries, like France and Spain, which have a law allowing abortion on request in the first trimester, are held up as positive models by pro-choice campaigners as examples of places which have a better law than Britain. In fact while women can access abortion in the first few weeks easily there, thousands travel to Britain to get abortions later in pregnancy.

In contrast, the argument we need to make now is for no limits on choice. The case for early termination is relatively uncontentious. The difficulty lies with concerns about later abortion, where a range of regressive ideas - that the fetus is by then 'human', and for example can feel pain; that women who reach this stage in term should opt for adoption; that there is no 'good' reason for abortion at this point - dominate the discussion. The call for abortion on request in the first trimester runs the risk of reinforcing these ideas. Instead we need to argue for real choice in abortion. This can only exist where there are no time limits or special criteria which regulate access in the law. What women really need is for abortion to be treated like any other medical procedure - something those who want it can access without having to 'prove' they need it. There should be no law on abortion - but to get this we will have to make the case for unlimited choice.

Ann Bradley further explores the abortion issue in the forthcoming LM106, out on Thursday 30 October

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