Should abortion be an election issue? Vote no!

The UK abortion debate promotes emotion over political principle, and forgets about women's rights.

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

Will abortion become a poll issue? asks an article on BBC News (1). The short answer is no. The longer answer is, unless the terms of the debate change dramatically, we’d better hope not.

Despite the best efforts of Cosmopolitan magazine to stir up an election debate by asking the leaders of the main political parties for their views on abortion, it has never been an issue in the UK elections and is even less likely to become an issue now. Tory party leader Michael Howard’s stance – that the ‘time limit’ for abortion should be reduced from 24 weeks to 20 weeks – is hardly a principled ‘pro-life’ position. The decision by top Catholic Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor to jump on Howard’s comments and suggest that English Catholics become Tory Party supporters will do little more than confuse Labour’s Catholic constituency.

Prime minister Tony Blair’s argument that abortion should stay out of the election and simply be a matter for individual conscience makes Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy’s admission that he has voted for a limit of 22 weeks in the past but ‘I don’t know what I would do now’ look decisive (though Blair’s talk of ‘fetal rights’ is clearly a cause for concern) (2). And that’s before you get to the UK public – of which, according to a Times/Populus poll in November 2004, 38 per cent believe that abortion should always be legal and 36 per cent say it should be ‘mostly legal’ (3). With all this equivocation, is there any reason to be having a debate about abortion at all?

However much politicians and commentators long for the UK general election to be a re-run of its US equivalent last year, in which at least some issues were predictable and at least some dividing lines were clear, Britain really is not America, and nowhere is this clearer than on the vexed question of abortion.

The question of abortion rights in the UK has always been something of a fudge. While nobody likes abortion, a woman’s right to an abortion if and when she needs it has long been understood as necessary for women’s ability to play an equal and independent role in society. However, access to abortion in the UK has been dealt with not as a question of political rights, but as a legal and medical issue. Women do not have the right to an abortion, but are allowed access to it if two doctors agree that it is in the interest of their health. As BBC News puts it, technically the 1967 Abortion Act ‘did not legalise abortions, but rather provided a legal defence for those carrying them out’ (4).

The upshot of this has been the widespread availability of abortion, and an acceptance that, for the most part, abortion is a fact of life. For over a decade, 23 per cent of conceptions in England and Wales have resulted in a legal abortion (5). This might look like, as Michael Howard puts it, the current rules are ‘tantamount to abortion on demand’. But it should be noted that the vast majority of abortions take place well before the legal limit of 24 weeks – in 2003, for example, 87 per cent of abortions were carried out at under 13 weeks’ gestation (6). For those seeking abortion up to and beyond the 20-week limit suggested by Howard, abortion providers report great difficulties in being able to meet even the small amount of demand there is.

And, crucially, while abortion might be widespread and relatively easy to access early on, it is still not abortion when demanded by a woman, but abortion when permitted by two doctors. By situating the abortion issue in the sphere of medicine and the law, rather than in the arena of political debate, the broader arguments surrounding women’s independence and equality have tended to be sidelined. This is particularly the case now.

As Stuart Derbyshire argues elsewhere on spiked, even in the USA the abortion issue fails to ignite the passions and draw the clear political lines that it used to (See Late abortion and the ‘fetal pain’ fallacy). President George W Bush, often depicted (particularly in the UK press) as a hardline anti-abortion crusader, has steered away from overt attacks on the right to abortion per se, and focused instead on particular grisly techniques used in late-term abortions. Traditional arguments about women’s right to choose have been displaced by more amorphous medical and ethical concerns about whether and when a fetus feels pain, and which types of operation are worse than others.

In the UK, the abortion debate has become even more depoliticised. The current proposals from some quarters to reduce the ‘time limit’ of 24 weeks is based on little more than emotion, generated by 4-D ultrasound images that show fetuses apparently walking and smiling in the womb. A favourite trick of one-time pro-choice female journalists, who have recently given birth, has become writing whimsical columns about how pregnancy and birth has altered their views about late abortion. Celebrity curate Joanna Jepson has made astonishing strides in taking the abortion law to task on the basis that one abortion of a fetus with cleft palate is an insult to people like her, who were born with a facial defect – although her case has just been thrown out.

The abortion debate today is about as far as it could be from a discussion about equal rights and women’s independence. Instead, it has become another hook for emotional outpourings about personal experience, and the indulging of high-profile individuals who wish to probe their consciences. In today’s world of emotive legislation, this could result, as it has in the USA, in a gradual chipping-away of the access to abortion, focusing on particular time-scales and specific procedures – which would be bad for the minority of women who need to access late-term abortion, and disastrous for the debate about women’s equality and abortion rights.

So accepted has the notion become that early abortion is a necessary evil but late abortion is tantamount to murder that few people point out how morally, and logically, bankrupt this argument is. Abortion is abortion – at whatever stage it takes place, it involves killing a fetus. And either women have the right to abortion or they don’t. The idea that abortion should be ‘mostly legal’, or legal up to the point when the fetus really looks like a baby, indicates the absence of moral judgement and political principle in the debate today.

There is the need for an intelligent, political debate about abortion – but the general election, in which the leaders of all the main parties would be pushed to compete over who has the most troubled conscience, is not it. To discuss abortion rights as an issue of political principle, you’d need an election debate with some politics, and some principles.

(1) Will abortion become poll issue?, Nick Assinder, BBC News, 15 March 2005

(2) Abortion not a poll issue – Blair, BBC News, 15 March 2005

(3) Abortion law, BBC News, 15 March 2005

(4) Abortion law, BBC News, 15 March 2005

(5) Conceptions rose in 2002 (.pdf 90.6 KB), Office for National Statistics, 11 November 2004

(6) Abortion Statistics, England and Wales: key facts – 2003, Office for National Statistics

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