The right time to debate abortion limits, or just the right time for a diversion?

Claiming that the time limit on pregnancy termination needs to be lowered because of advances in medical science is not just factually inaccurate, it's also actively cruel


Can anyone think of a good word to describe Jeremy Hunt, former Culture Secretary, now Health Secretary, who has launched an attack on women's right to choose after only a few weeks in the job?

Hunt told the Times that he was personally in favour of halving the time limit on legal abortion in the UK - not just cutting it, halving it - after 'looking at the evidence.' He declined to go into detail about what particular evidence he had looked at. In fact, doctors remain unanimous that there is absolutely no case for reducing the time limit to 20 weeks, never mind 12: Chapter 2 of the latest Select Committee Report on neonatal viability and the upper gestational time limit proves conclusively that, as Darinka Aleksic of Abortion Rights said today, 'there is no scientific basis for reducing the abortion time limit. The main UK medical bodies all support the current 24 week limit." The small matter of medical opinion, however, doesn't seem to matter to the Health Secretary.

No, one suspects that all the evidence Hunt needed to look at was the evidence that hospital wards are facing the chop all over the country and the NHS is in desperate need of funding - because whilst every UK medical body supports the current upper time limit on abortion, every UK Conservative think-tank could probably be pressed to agree that an attack on abortion rights is a guaranteed way to distract attention from the punishing effects of government-imposed austerity. Jeremy Hunt's background is not in medicine - it is in public relations. Hunt cofounded the agency Profile PR in the 1990s, before he went into politics, and as a PR man, his understanding of the debate surrounding abortion and women's rights is exactly as detailed as it needs to be. 

It'd be great, wouldn't it, if we had a Minister whose specific job it was to advocate for women's rights at the heart of government and to ensure that women's lives and bodies are not used as bargaining chips in the public school poker game of Westminster politics. Unfortunately, Hunt's comments come only a few days after Maria Miller, the new Tory Minister for Women, called for a four-week reduction in the time limit on legal abortion, which begs the question - what precisely do we look for in a Minister for Women? Newly-appointed Miller's sole qualification for the job appears to be that she is one, which admittedly puts her at an advantge compared to most of the rest of the cabinet, but only just. I went to school, but that does not mean I'm qualified to be Education Secretary. Miller also has a role overseeing Culture, Media and Sport, which says a great deal about how this government understands the urgency of women's politics.

So let's do what this government won't, and have a hard look at the facts. Only a tiny fraction of pregnancy terminations in Britain occur after 20 weeks- between one and two per cent, or 8,000 procedures. Most of those operations are performed on extremely vulnerable women, on teenagers who did not recognise the symptoms of pregnancy or low-income women travelling from Northern Ireland where, in Britain, in the 21st century, abortion is still illegal. The rest are women carrying fetuses with severe or fatal birth defects like Edwards' syndrome which cannot be detected before 21 weeks, and having to terminate a pregnancy rather than give birth to a child with insurmountable health problems is traumatic enough for those involved without a bigots barging in to make it even harder in the name of the sort of moral tub-thumping that distracts the broadsheets from frontline cuts.

Claiming that the time limit on pregnancy termination needs to be lowered because of advances in medical science is not just factually inaccurate, it's also actively cruel. The latest figures show that of babies born at 22 weeks' gestation, only one per cent survived to leave the delivery room. One. Per. Cent. The other 99 per cent were born dead, died during delivery, or were not strong enough to make it through the intensive care process. Spreading the myth that neonates born at 20-24 weeks, never mind 12, are viable is “a cruel deception for prospective parents with premature babies,” according to Dr Evan Harris, pro-choice campaigner and former Select Committee member.

Evidence seems to indicate clearly that reducing the time limit on legal abortion does nothing to reduce the number of terminations that take place - it just forces women with later-stage crisis pregnancies into the shady, unhygienic arms of black-market abortionists. Any attack on late-term abortion is an attack on some of the neediest women in our society in the most desperate and vulnerable position imaginable. How politicians like Millar find the gumption to propose such an attack as a move to protect women is a matter for their own consciences. How they can, with a straight face,suggest  forcing women with crisis pregnancies or with horrifically sick fetuses growing inside them to carry those pregnancies to term against their will and then give birth to them in pain and fear - for, let's be clear, that is precisely what is being proposed here- is a matter for their consciences. How a government that once claimed to stand for women and children can appoint a person proposing such moves as minister for women is a matter for all of us. Let's just say that Maria Miller does not seem to have grasped the 'for women' part of her job title, and the jury's still out on 'Minister'.

The uncomfortable truth is that when conservative politicians speak of lowering the time-limit on legal abortion by a few weeks, they are not thinking of those 8000 women who will be directly affected. They are thinking of the hundreds of thousands of swing voters they hope to sway, at a time when the Tories are running ten points behind in some polls, by playing to issues of moral contention with dodgy science. It doesn't cost much- just the lives and futures of a few thousand scared, vulnerable, low-incomw women and teenage girls, and they probably weren't going to vote Tory anyway.

Unfortunately, it's not just those women who will be affected by another attempt to lower the abortion time limit. In any pro-choice country- and over seventy per cent of British people are pro-choice- assaults on women's right to choose have to be done gradually, chipping away at public opinion bit by bit. So when the Minister for Women comes out in support of a four-week reduction in the time limit on legal abortion which will cause needless trauma to some of the most vulnerable women in our society for no good reason, she looks like a bigot - but when the Health Secretary then speaks out for a twelve-week reduction, the Minister for Women suddenly looks reasonable. Those enemies of women's rights who have an agenda beyond maintaining the Conservative party's grip on power - anti-sex, anti-woman religious groups like Forty Days for Life and Care UK who believe in rolling back the clock on reproductive rights by whatever means possible - know this game very well. They know that the fight against women's rights is a long game, a game of lobbying, wheedling and moving the parameters of public prejudice inch by inch. That's how the trick is done. And then you wake up one day and it's trans-vaginal ultrasounds in clinics fitted with bomb-detectors, and knitting needles in lonely motel rooms.

A person's right decide what happens to her own body should not be subject to the whims of changing public opinion. Those on left and right who believe that women are human beings who should be permitted to make their own healthcare decisions must make strong case for preserving and extending the time limit. Those who believe that medical and social policymaking should be done on the basis of hard scientific evidence, and not the cynical moral wrangling of clueless Ministers or the sanctimonious sexism of religious interest groups should stand up for reason and freedom, and stand up now.

* For more information on the campaign to preserve and extend the legal time-limit on pregnancy termination, take a look at '24 reasons for 24 weeks,' a campaign I co-authored in 2008, during the last similar attack.

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