New lease of Life The struggle for life

Fresh dilemmas have boosted the anti-abortion lobby, but the basic issue is unchanged. reports.

Jack Scarisbrick just could not conceal his glee. Only hours after learning last week that a 16-week-old twin foetus had already been aborted, the national chairman of Life was cock-a-hoop.

"This," he rejoiced down the phone, "is an all-time high. A defining moment, as they say. Doctors have finally been exposed as callous and trigger-happy, gynaecology has been unmasked as butchery, the media are on our side as never before. We've never had an opportunity like this to reach hearts." He paused for breath, cast an eye back over the week's events, and, with the satisfaction of a man who feels his day has finally come, observed: "Suddenly,people are listening."

It has been quite a wait. Mr Scarisbrick and fellow pro-life campaigners have been keeping the faith for nearly 30 years. Abortion was made legal in 1967 and the Act has proved remarkably resilient withstanding all - and there have been many - assaults. But the amazing saga of the selective abortion of a healthy twin last week, following on so swiftly from the destruction of some 3,300 frozen embryos, has made a disturbed and receptive audience of the British, the like of which Mr Scarisbrick could scarcely have dreamed.

Anxiety about abortion, and the status of a foetus, has saturated the news. Profound misgivings have been voiced about a medical profession which employs Phillip Bennett, the gynae-cologist at the centre of the twins story, to "dismember the foetus, pull it limb from limb and remove it piece by piece". That he then added "two hours later, I've forgotten them" proved too much for many commentators. If anti-nuclear campaigners in the Eighties had Chernobyl, the anti-abortion lobby now has Professor Bennett - and a cracking chance to scoop up sympathy, support, and, conceivably, a change in the law. As Mr Scarisbrick put it: "We opened our newspapers last week and Bennett fell from the sky." He couldn't believe his luck.

These have been trying years for Britain's pro-life crusaders. Beating the anti-abortion drum since 1967 to a largely impassive public, with only zeal and theirplastic foetus models to sustain them, was a lonely business. Poll after cursed poll reconfirmed popular support for the law. Indeed, a survey for the pro-choice Birth Control Trust last year suggested two-thirds of people want early abortion on demand.

The nastiest backstreet abortion memories have faded, and with them the pro-choice lobby's strongest card, yet successive parliamentary reviews of the act unerringly uphold the status quo. The failure of David Alton MP in 1988 to cut the time limit from 28 to 18 weeks was a cruel disappointment for Life and the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (Spuc), the two principal pro-life organisations. While the time limit was reduced to 24 weeks in 1990, termination up to term in exceptional circumstances was introduced.

The harder the pro-lifers tried, it seemed, the worse things got. When, in 1993, militants from Rescue UK took to picketing abortion clinics with pictures of aborted foetuses, their invitation to come and help "rescue babies" was declined by the great majority of the movement who suspected, quite rightly, that shock tactics imported from America might not go down too well with the British public. Rescue UK achieved little more than to divide the movement and confirm the public's suspicion that anti-abortion campaigners were a bunch of crazy fanatics.

Pro-lifers' attachment to graphic imagery of the foetus has always been an important part of what they regard as their role in educating the public on the reality of abortion. "If women had glass tummies, would they ever have abortions?" ask leaflets published by the Spuc; their video, The Silent Scream, is by the society's own admission, harrowing. The wisdom of this strategy was questionable - many regarded it as offensive and exploitation of the yuk factor became a familiar charge.

In 1993, a Christian charity worker was convicted of a public order offence for waving a picture of a dismembered foetus outside an abortion clinic on the grounds that it was insulting to staff and patients. And an unsuccessful campaign earlier this year against legalisation of abortion in Guernsey got into hot water, after "emotive" leaflets were pushed through letterboxes. The British do not much care for that kind of thing.

If the pro-lifers' tactics were ill-advised, other circumstances have not been kind. The movement does not, by and large, enjoy the support of the great and good, and as Mr Scarisbrick lamented, the media tend to "send them up". Nor, oddly enough, do they have much luck with our political right. America's formidable New Right clutches right-to-life to its bosom, but Portillo et al have little time for it. A preoccupation with young single mothers sponging off the state perhaps explains this.

"There have been some desperate moments. I used to say it would take 25 years to repeal the abortion law. I was wrong. But," reflected Mr Scarisbrick, "I really do believe we've passed the worst now." Pro-lifers argue that a spontaneous and irresistible series of events - the abortion of a twin, the frozen embryo controversy, new reports that a foetus feels pain in the womb - account for their improved prospects. And there does indeed appear to be, as Mr Scarisbrick noted, "a groundswell of anxiety that the things got out of hand".

There is another interpretation: that this is the fruit of a much more sophisticated strategy - one which has stopped screaming "Abortion is murder!", and started tapping into unease about anything from mothers who smoke to designer babies. Tapping in, and then steering those qualms back towards abortion.

Are we seeing the stirrings of a sea change in opinion? Or is disquiet about the furthest reaches of scientific possibility being exploited by pro-lifers?

"They've lost the mainstream argument about whether abortion is right or wrong, and they know it," according to Ann Furedi, of the Birth Control Trust. "They don't talk about it any more. Instead, they are highlighting issues around which there is genuine public doubt, and exploiting them to put the foetus back centre stage, as a human being with equal rights."

In the US this has meant prosecuting women for "prenatal child neglect" - taking drugs or drinking while pregnant, usually without considering whether it was "good for the unborn child". In one case a child was placed in care because the expectant mother "ate what she liked". As the feminist writer Janet Hadley describes in her book, Abortion: between freedom and necessity, the term "maternal environment" is increasingly used to describe women as "more or less passive spectators in their own pregnancies".

In Britain, pro-life campaigners are capitalising on the unease felt about scientific advance. The technique of selective abortion, when used upon the healthy twin of a mother in "straitened circumstances", looked like a pretty dubious scientific "advance" to some. Talk of designer babies troubles us. Destroying frozen human embryos, as one might defrost and ditch an old leg of lamb from the freezer, did little for public confidence in science. Neither, many feel, did the recent development of a procedure known as partial abortion. Here, a well-developed foetus is withdrawn through the birth canal until, in the words of one appalled MP, Elizabeth Peacock, "only the head remains inside. The bottom of the child's skull is pierced and the brains sucked out, thus collapsing the head".

"I'd be very surprised if these issues didn't all have an impact on public perceptions of abortion," conceded Janet Hadley. "These are issues which make people really stop and think: 'Is this what we meant by making abortion legal?' "

And that appears to be happening. Spuc and Life both claim to be flooded with anxious calls. "People are saying they just had no idea that the world had come to this terrible pass," reported Phyllis Bowman, director of Spuc. Offers of money and volunteers are, by all accounts, piling up.

As are the column inches. Suddenly, the media are extremely excited by the anti-abortion movement again, and not quite so quick to "send it up". "Did you see the piece in the Star?" asked Mr Scarisbrick. "A brilliant piece of journalism! Thumping stuff!" Phyllis Bowman is grimly triumphant.

"The way the media have treated us all these years - it's something which has eaten away at my soul. The media were the whole reason why the public didn't understand. Now we've got at least three papers on our side, and you've even got the Guardian running an article calling for IVF to be abolished. It's all going to change now."

If Ms Bowman's analysis is correct and the pro-life movement's problems were all down to unhelpful journalists ("they thought we were an attack on their lifestyle, you see"), then truly its day has come. Serious newspapers in recent weeks have been agonising over "profound ethical dilemmas". So, the pro-life movement just has to sit back,wait for the public to read, and victory will be theirs?

"The whole point is," Ann Furedi argued last week, "that there's nothing objectively new in any of this. When it all comes down to it, the same fundamental principle is at stake. Either you accept that the foetus or embryo is a human being with the same rights as a living human being, or you do not. Either you believe in a woman's right to choose, or you do not."

Certainly, recent events have been dramatic. The debacle at Queen Charlotte's Hospital was electrifying. Embryos in test tubes made an arresting spectacle. It is all much more exciting than the well-worn stuff about backstreet abortions and women's rights. But essentially, it reduces to the same argument.

"The case of the twins was extraordinary," said Janet Hadley. "But if you look at the other side of it, what's the alternative? 'No, you are not going to have an abortion. You are going to have a pregnancy you do not want.' "

Four out of 10 British women have an abortion at some time in their lives. Half of all conceptions are unplanned, and 30 per cent occur while contraception is being used. "The naive idealism encouraged by pro-life groups," argued Ann Ferudi, "bites the dust when it meets the realities of people's personal experience."

This society still generally regards sex as a legitimate recreational activity, and considers the notion of only engaging in it to become pregnant fairly bizarre. Pro-life campaigners may present new events in eye-catching wrapping paper but, once we undo all the layers, we are left looking at the same question: should women have the right to choose? And, ironically, the pro-life movement agrees.

"We have to keep coming back to the fundamentals. What happens when an abortion is done?" asked Jack Scarisbrick. "A human being is killed."

The pro-life movement may look like it has its best chance in 30 years to win support for legal reform because it has redrawn the debate. But like old socialists who just can't help saying "comrade" even though they know it doesn't go down so well these days, its leaders appear unwilling, or perhaps unable, to resist the oldest and least successful line: that the 1967 Act must be abolished because abortion means murdering babies - a call which the country has consistently rejected. Flushed with success, this is something they seem to be forgetting.

"You see," Mr Scarisbrick explained. "Our strongest argument is to keep saying that women do not want abortion."

How the 1967 Abortion Act has withstood the test of time

1861 Offences against the Persons Act

In an effort to stem the number of deaths from "back-street" abortions the Act made it illegal to "procure a miscarriage"

1938 Dr Aleck Bourne challenge

Dr Bourne invited police to prosecute him for carrying out an abortion on a 14-year-old rape victim. He was acquitted on the grounds that he acted to save her life

1939 Birkett Committee calls for change in law Government-appointed committee recommended liberalising abortion law but the outbreak of Second World War intervened

1967 The Abortion Act

David Steel's Bill to provide a framework for legal abortions was passed. His aim, he said, was to "stamp out backstreet abortions"

1969 First attempt at amendment fails

Amid claims that the Act was being used for "abortion on demand", Norman St John-Stevas presented a Bill to rescind the "social" clause and make it compulsory for one certifying doctor to be a consultant gynaecologist or doctor appointed by the Secretary of State, the first of many unsuccessful assaults on the 1967 Act. However, the government set up the Lane Committee to investigate how the Act was working

1974 Lane Committee report backs Act

The committee backed the working of the 1967 Act

1979 Corrie amendment fails

John Corrie's Private Member's Bill aimed to change the social clause to stipulate that there would have to be serious injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or to her existing children, to prohibit most abortions after 20 weeks, to tighten the conscience clause and to stop any links between the pregnancy advice bureaux and the abortion clinics. The Trades Union Congress, unprecedentedly, supported the pro- abortion women's groups and called for the Bill's defeat

1980 Alton amendment fails

David Alton failed to prohibit abortions after 24 weeks

1982 Lords amendment fails

Lord Robertson of Oakridge introduced a Bill similar to John Corrie's, but failed to get a majority in the Lords

1987 Paternal rights amendment fails

After a father had unsuccessfully appealed in court before an intended abortion, Peter Bruinvels introduced a Bill to amend the Infant Life (Preservation) Act to give putative fathers the right to be consulted. The Bill failed without even the support of the pro-life lobby who feared that interference with the existing Act could lead to amendments supporting abortion up to birth

1988 Alton's second amendment fails

David Alton aimed to establish an abortion time limit of 18 weeks. After numerous amendments (later abortions in emergencies, in cases of child handicap, for rape and incest cases and where the mother was under 18) the Bill was finally talked out

1989 Much activity but no change

Ann Widdecombe aimed to make it necessary for a woman coming to Britain for an abortion to notify a doctor in her own country of the operation. Nicholas Bennett presented a Bill to require doctors to declare that they had no interest and derived no benefits from abortion clinics. David Amess sought for doctors and nurses to opt in to abortion work rather than out of it. Kenneth Hargreaves's Bill required ancillary workers to give positive assent to assisting at abortions

1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act

Attempting to provide a response to rapidly changing medical practice, the Act introduced, along with permitting the use of human embryos for experimental purposes, an upper limit of 24 weeks, instead of 28 weeks, for most abortions. In addition, the Act permitted selective reduction of embryos in a multiple pregnancy

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