Leading article:Don't judge her - and don't hound her

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Through no fault of her own, one unfortunate woman's difficult personal decision is being recounted, discussed, sympathised with, and reviled across the nation. When a single mother, pregnant with twins, and afraid she could not cope, went to her doctor for advice, she little expected to find her story on the front page of the newspapers. Now, her decision to abort one foetus only (the other will still be carried to term) has provoked a national furore.

While the manner in which this case has grabbed public attention is appalling - a breach of privacy, followed by anti-abortionists' publicity gimmicks - the issues it raises merit public discussion. However, the complicated questions that need to be resolved are actually emotional and personal. There are no simple moral imperatives here, nor can legislative rules provide the answer to such difficult cases as these.

The doctor who let this woman's story out in this way should be subjected by his hospital authorities to a breach of privacy disciplinary inquiry. Whether he intended or not, he has almost certainly inflicted additional emotional pain on a woman in that hospital's care. Every patient has a right to privacy in their medical affairs, but on a question such as this, where passionate views are held, and where manipulative pressure is easily exerted, patients deserve more protection than ever.

For those great emotion manipulators at the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child have been hard at work. And the hospital played into their hands. Taking out an injunction against the abortion of one of the foetuses, as SPUC did yesterday, was a disgraceful piece of publicity- seeking behaviour. SPUC did not even know at the time that the foetus had already been aborted. It and the rest of the pro-life camp can lobby all they like in legitimate ways to get the laws changed. But to play havoc with a vulnerable woman's life, just to make their political point, is unacceptable. The cash offers that SPUC and Life have publicised with such enthusiasm are, similarly, only tricks to provoke public attention.

But, now that this particularly difficult abortion has been bounced on to the agenda, it does enable a decent reflection on the problems that women and doctors face in deciding when an abortion is acceptable for social reasons. In more straightforward abortion cases, most of us already have a rough idea what we think - both about the appropriate legal framework and the personal ethics involved. Parliament rewrote the legislation only six years ago, the most important questions were well aired, the outcome was consistent with what we know about public opinion, and nothing has happened to suggest we need to revisit the law again.

The current legislative framework must remain in place. Nothing about the fact that there are twin foetuses involved undermines the principle of according choice to the woman involved and to her doctor, so long as existing rules and procedures are followed. The medical profession that agrees to and carries out abortions operates within strict guidelines, and according to both the spirit and the letter of the law. Of course, some women may later feel pain, ambivalence and regret about their decisions, but the current framework is the best and most constructive we can expect to operate. Only the individuals involved can really get to grips with the complex emotional and physical circumstances surrounding a pregnancy, and the myriad consequences following whatever that woman does. For the state (or political and religious lobby groups) to intervene in every case would be far more destructive, damaging and unethical.

For the most part, decisions about abortions do, indeed, take place in the privacy of the home and the doctor's surgery. Political life in Britain is not poisoned by the passions and the violence that rock the US over abortion. This is a great blessing, and a sign of mature politics; we should hope it stays this way.

So the woman who is pregnant with twins should be able to make her own private decision with her doctor about what to do. Should she decide, having considered all the alternatives, that she wants to abort one of the foetuses in her womb, neither the state, nor groups such as SPUC should be able to stop her.

But even the most ardent pro-choice supporters experience a twinge of unease about the idea of aborting one twin and not the other. Rationally, all the pro-choice arguments still hold. But there is something hard and strange about choosing between twins in this way.

It cannot be a simple or easy decision for any woman to make. Imagine it. Every day of the surviving child's life, this mother will be reminded that the other twin perished on her decision. As the child grows, she will have cope with the fact that she chose one rather than the other. And at some stage she must explain her decision, and the story of the missing twin to her son or daughter. Not for her the chance that other women have of putting their choices behind them: this choice will always be with her. The pain and confusion for mother and child could be immense. Aborting both twins might have been easier to cope with than the torment of losing one.

When someone such as Wendy Savage argues that she would resist aborting only one twin because of the psychological damage it might inflict on mother and child, it is worth taking stock. Dr Savage is a long-standing pro-choice advocate, as well as an experienced gynaecologist, and prominent feminist: she is not one to indulge in the knee-jerk simplistic reactions of anti-abortion campaigners.

Finally, a woman has taken a horrifically difficult decision. Wrong or right, she needs the medical profession's help to handle it. She does not need to be hounded by anyone, least of all pro-life fanatics.