Defending abortion – in law and in practice

This spiked-paper tackles the hard arguments against abortion. It puts the case for late abortion and abortion for fetal abnormality, and refutes the claim that abortion is a threat to women's mental and physcial health.

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Topics Politics

Overview

Outright opposition to all abortion is today a minority view. Most condemnation of, or debate about, abortion now focuses not on the issue of abortion per se but on specific types of abortion, or on the reasons women give for wanting an abortion that are regarded as particularly problematic.

Here we examine why opposition to all abortion has become an outlook held by few people.

We then discuss examples where abortion remains controversial, and put forward arguments in support of a woman’s right to choose in even these instances.

Finally we consider, and refute, the case made mainly by opponents of abortion, that abortion constitutes a risk to women’s health.

Key points:

On the place of abortion in British society today…

For many women, abortion currently acts as an essential back-up to contraception, necessary to enable them to regulate their fertility and plan their families. Since individuals are expected to plan their families, abortion is now considered by most sections of society as a ‘fact of life’. In early pregnancy at least, abortion is viewed by most as better than unwanted childbirth.

In this context, it is inappropriate for abortion to be considered as a problem – rather it is a solution to a problem.

The most contentious areas of discussion are:

Abortion at later gestations of pregnancy

Abortion on grounds of fetal abnormality

There are also concerns raised about the health risks of abortion.

On ‘late’ abortion…

While most people have no difficulty accepting the legality of abortion at early stages of pregnancy, fewer are so sure about their position as pregnancy progresses – especially when the fetus is perceived to be ‘viable’. In the UK parliament, the most frequent kind of measure proposed to reform abortion law has been to reduce the legal time limit.

It is incorrect to assume that the need for late abortion could be removed by expanding access to early abortion. Most abortions in the second trimester take place for reasons that could not have been anticipated earlier in the pregnancy.

In practice, the law plays little role in preventing late abortions. There are few requests for abortion in the later stages of pregnancy because women do not request them and doctors are not prepared to perform them.

On abortion for fetal abnormality…

In 1967, when abortion was made legal in the UK, fetal abnormality was construed a ‘good’ reason for abortion. Today the opposite seems the case. This kind of abortion is now considered at best ethically difficult, at worst a manifestation of anti-disability views.

Abortion for abnormality does not encourage discrimination against disabled people. It is possible to make a judgement or express an attitude towards a particular condition, without in any way imputing an attitude towards the value of people who suffer from that condition.

A woman who opts for this kind of abortion is not making a social or political statement about the abnormality, or about people with that disability. She is making a statement about herself; what she feels she can cope with and what she wants.

On the ‘health risks’ of abortion…

The recent Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists guideline, The Care of Women Requesting Induced Abortion, provides evidence based on systematic literature reviews that abortion cannot be considered a serious risk to women’s physical or mental health (1).

Claims by opponents of abortion that abortion leads to breast cancer, future infertility, or mental ill-health can be understood as a political strategy, not an objective evaluation of the likely effects of abortion for a woman’s health.

For basic facts and statistics on abortion, refer to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service

Further comment about the issues discussed in this paper can be found on the following sites:Pro-Choice Forum (research papers and comment)
British Pregnancy Advisory Service (facts/statistics and comment)
Office for National Statistics (key tables)
Royal College of Gynaecologist (policy and research papers)

Ann Furedi is director of communications at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS).

Dr Ellie Lee is lecturer in sociology at the University of Southampton, UK, and coordinator of Pro-Choice Forum.

Read on:

Part two: Abortion is a fact of life

Part three: The case for ‘late’ abortion

Part four: Abortion for fetal abnormality

Part five: Is abortion a health risk?

(1) RCOG. 2000. The Care of Women Requesting Abortion, Evidence-based Guideline No. 7. RCOG Press: London.

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