Why a modern feminist like Maria Miller should look at the facts before airing her views on abortion

If medical science allows a 22-week old foetus to be viable, perhaps the abortion limit should change. In the meantime, the minister should hold back on her lifestyle advice

Mary Ann Sieghart
Thursday 04 October 2012 10:04

How wonderful to have a feminist as Minister for Women! It’s a great comfort to know that Maria Miller has our interests at heart. She doesn’t want to reduce the abortion limit from 24 to 20 weeks because she disapproves of abortion. Oh, no. She’s “driven by the practical impact that late-term abortion has on women”.

And she says that advances in medical science allow more premature babies to survive. She’s even a “very modern feminist”.

Odd, that. You’d think a very modern feminist would take more care to look at the facts. For it turns out that advances in medical science have had no effect on babies’ survival rates below the legal limit of 24 weeks. A study in the British Medical Journal showed that, while many more babies are now surviving at 24 and 25 weeks, survival rates haven’t risen at all for those born at 23 weeks or less.

Moreover, these very premature babies have an extremely high risk of disability. Only 1 per cent of babies born at 22 weeks survive and 70 per cent of them are severely disabled. Of those born between 23 and 24 weeks, two-thirds have moderate or severe disabilities. By the time the baby is 25 or 26 weeks, it has only a one-third chance of being disabled.

So, from the point of view of the baby’s viability, the current 24-week limit looks just about right. What about the effect on the mother, though?

Few, given the choice, would have an abortion that late. It involves inducing a stillbirth and it must be distressing. These late abortions are very rare: they account for less than 2 per cent of the total. Some happen because babies have severe abnormalities that only show up on the 20-week scan. Reducing the limit to 20 weeks could force those mothers to carry the baby to term with the prospect of it dying at, or shortly after, birth, or living a horribly damaged and dependent life.

A look at the reasons given to BPAS, which carries out most of the UK’s late-term abortions, shows a heart-rending catalogue. There’s the 17-year-old who had three negative pregnancy tests. An 18-year-old had an early abortion, then a negative pregnancy test and a contraceptive implant. It turned out she was still pregnant. A 19-year-old had always had irregular periods and never had sex without a condom. By the time she realised she was pregnant, it took her three weeks to get a hospital appointment. I’m sure these abortions were traumatic – but nothing like as traumatic as being forced to give birth to an unwanted baby at a tender age.

When medical science advances enough to make a 22-week foetus genuinely viable, it may make sense to lower the abortion limit. Until then, it’s not for Maria Miller to decide whether individual women will suffer more from having an abortion or from giving birth. If very modern feminism means anything, it is that ministers should trust women to take decisions for themselves.

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