In my early days in general practice, doing a pregnancy test was something like performing a laboratory experiment in the surgery, involving test-tubes, pipettes and the interpretation of subtle changes in the appearance of chemical indicators. Though this was a laborious process, I was often grateful for the time it offered to try to gauge what result was anticipated and how whatever news emerged was likely to be received. Of course, the range of possible responses to a positive test is wide, from joy and delight to horror and despair, and the hapless GP needs to be ready for the emotional rollercoaster. As Ann Furedi observes in her new book, The Moral Case for Abortion, ‘when a woman knows that she is pregnant, she stands at a fork in the road of her life’s path’. If she chooses to continue with the pregnancy, her life will never be the same again. If, on the other hand, she opts for termination, this will also, inescapably, have consequences.
The central point of Furedi’s powerfully argued book is that what matters here is choice. A woman should be able to choose whether or not to have a baby. She may not make what others consider a wise choice, but it should be her choice and her capacity to make this choice is the essence of her humanity. Any denial or restriction of a woman’s choice in this matter is an infringement on her autonomy, her bodily integrity, her personhood.
Furedi argues that when pro-life campaigners claim human personhood for the fetus they express a degraded conception of what it means to be fully human
Though pregnancy tests have improved dramatically over the years and are now readily available over the pharmacy counter, what has not changed is the legal framework established in Britain by the 1967 Abortion Act. Though this is, rightly, regarded as a liberalising measure, it is, as Furedi shows, imbued with eugenic prejudices and allows abortion only in ‘exceptional’ circumstances. Any woman with a positive pregnancy test who chooses against proceeding to childbirth must next persuade her GP – and one other doctor – to approve her decision and fill in the appropriate form (which has, inexplicably, changed in colour but not in content over the past half century). The 1967 Act medicalises abortion and regulates it more strictly than any similar surgical procedure. It maintains and reinforces the stigma attached to abortion, a procedure that one-in-three British women are likely to undergo (mostly in their twenties and half when they are already mothers).