A shocking betrayal of women’s rights

The chief executive of BPAS slams the UK government’s refusal to allow a free vote on abortion in parliament.

Ann Furedi

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Topics Politics

As chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, a charity providing around 55,000 abortions a year in England, Wales and Scotland, the close of parliamentary debates last night should have been a cause for celebration for me. Instead it was a betrayal. The first House of Commons debate in 18 years with the power to change abortion law came to nothing; if a proper debate and vote had been allowed, they would almost certainly have confirmed the need for changes to the abortion law.

The New Labour government, by means of a whipped Labour vote (322 Ayes to 157 Noes), ensured by procedural means that that there was no way for parliament to authorise – or even debate – any of the proposed progressive changes to abortion legislation. Changes that were supported by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Nursing and the findings of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s 2007 report Scientific Developments Relating to the Abortion Act 1967 (read the report here).

The new clauses to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Bill, which MPs were prevented from voting on, were aimed at modernising the law to give women access to abortion earlier on. They included the removal of the requirement for two doctors’ signatures before an abortion can be carried out, which can cause delays in access to abortion services and has no value in terms of safety. New clauses would also have permitted nurses and midwives with suitable training to carry out all stages of early medical and early surgical abortion, which would increase access to abortion at the earliest stages without compromising safety or quality of care. New clauses would have enabled women, who choose to do so, to take the second stage of early medical abortion at home. There are many other new clauses with a similar intention of removing barriers to the earliest abortions, and one standalone political clause: to extend the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.

Reports claim that the government decided not to permit MPs to vote on abortion because it fears that the House of Lords would use this as an opportunity to attack the time limit for abortion; this is utter nonsense. The previous voting records on amendments to the HFE Bill show this. The Lords have already rejected several reactionary restrictions on abortion and embryo research and fertility treatment during the passage of the HFE Bill. The Lords voted by an unusually heavy margin (four to one) on 28 January 2008 to defeat an amendment that would have banned all abortion for fetal abnormality. This would have forced some women, against their will, to carry babies standing no chance of survival to term. This was a higher margin of defeat than for many of the restrictive measures aimed at embryo research and fertility treatment that the Lords rejected during the passage of the Bill.

The new clauses that MPs have been prevented from voting on were all relatively conservative measures, with the support of the medical and nursing profession, aimed at modernising the law to give women access to abortion earlier in their pregnancies.

Abortion has always been part and parcel of the HFE Bill, since it was drawn up in 1990, becoming the vehicle to amend the 1967 Abortion Act. Anti-choice attacks on the time limit for abortion were voted on (and defeated) in earlier stages of the Bill. By the end of the HFE Bill’s passage through parliament, there will have been 86 hours of debate on the Bill, and of that, only four hours will have been spent debating abortion. So government claims that the abortion debates could be ‘distracting’ from the passage of the Bill are unfounded.

The government has not seen fit to give an official reason for its move, but it knows that the pro-choice majority of MPs in parliament would pass the modernising amendments, including extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. This has been opposed by the Stormont MPs – all of whom are anti-choice – who do not want to see women in Northern Ireland having the same abortion rights as women in the rest of the UK. There has been speculation that these MPs have even threatened that they will disrupt the peace process in Northern Ireland if the Abortion Act is extended there. The government is also concerned about the outcome of the Glenrothes by-election in Scotland, which will happen soon, and doesn’t want to do anything controversial in the run-up to it.

As an abortion provider it seems scandalous to me that, having denied MPs the chance to make the abortion law fit for purpose, Downing Street says it has no plans to reintroduce the matter. Ministers and officials at the Department of Health have repeatedly said to us that they see no need to change the law because it is possible to ‘work around’ its deficiencies. This is not good enough. The law as it stands undermines the delivery of safe, evidence-based abortion services.

The requirement for two doctors to certify that a woman meets the current legal grounds delays some women obtaining treatment – even though both doctors can sign the necessary forms without seeing the woman in person. The prohibition of nurses from carrying out early abortions reduces the number of available appointments at early stages – even though in many services that provide the abortion pill, things are done entirely by nurses with the doctor’s role confined to signing the prescription. Women in Northern Ireland must work around the law by travelling to Britain for treatment. All women have to make repeat visits to clinics to receive early medical abortion treatment under nine weeks, so they work around the law by discharging themselves and completing their abortion at home. We provide an excellent abortion service, in spite of an outdated law. But society deserves better from a government that claims to be committed to public health and women’s rights.

The proposed new clauses to the HFE Bill affecting abortion care are primarily:

  • Removal of the need for two doctors’ signatures to give permission before an abortion can be carried out. Instead abortion would be provided on the basis of informed patient consent and in their best interests, as with all other medical procedures. (Evan Harris MP et al, New Clauses 1 & 13)
  • Allowing nurses and midwives to carry out abortions where appropriate. (Frank Dobson MP et al, New Clause 2 & 14)
  • Allowing abortions to be carried out in GPs’ surgeries and Family Planning Clinics where appropriate. (Jacqui Lait MP et al, New Clauses 7 & 10)
  • Home administration of misoprostol (the second dose of medication when undergoing early medical abortion). (Christine McCafferty MP et al, New Clause 9)
  • Preventing misleading advertising by pregnancy counselling services to require clarity in advertising where they won’t refer for abortion and don’t provide treatment. (John Bercow MP et al, New Clause 11)
  • Clarifying that the legal right of conscientious objection does not also extend to the non-provision of contraception on this ground. (Evan Harris MP et al, New Clause 12)
  • Extending the Abortion Act 1967 to Northern Ireland. (Diane Abbott MP et al, New Clause 30)

That misguided political opportunism has led the government to shelve a debate on these measures is a shocking act of betrayal of women.

At the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) conference on 13 October, public health minister Dawn Primarolo MP spoke of her enthusiasm for the HFE Bill. She stressed to the IVF and embryo research regulatory body that the law must keep pace with scientific and medical developments, and that services need ‘proportionate’ regulation. She rightly called for a law that is both ‘right for science and right for society’.

As a former director of policy at the HFEA, I understand how important it is to modernise the law regulating infertility research and treatment. As chief executive of BPAS, I understand that legal modernisation is equally essential for abortion care, also a medical treatment affecting thousands of women in extremely difficult situations. From my time at the HFEA, I remember the frustration of scientists, clinicians and regulators who were unable to pursue rational and ethical lines of work because of the prohibitions of an overly prescriptive and out-of-date law. This HFE Bill is necessary, actually long overdue, to set the legislative framework necessary for fertility research and treatment in the twenty-first century. But the same frustrations felt by infertility doctors are shared by the doctors and nurses striving to provide a modern, evidence-based abortion service as part of family-planning care in the UK.

The 1990 HFE Act amended the 1967 Abortion Act, and shaped the manner in which abortion services are currently provided. But, ungainly as it may seem to yoke these two areas of legislation together, new clauses to the HFE Bill on abortion are appropriate and necessary to make sure that abortion services, too, can keep pace with scientific and medical developments and are regulated proportionately.

It seems utterly paradoxical that in 1990, a Tory, male, middle-aged secretary of state for health (the Rt Hon Kenneth Clark MP), at the time of a family-values led government, not only allowed progressive amendments to the abortion law to be included in the HFE Bill in 1990, but argued for them. Yesterday in parliament, he argued cogently for the right to a free debate and was supported by fellow Conservative MPs Crispin Blunt, Robert Keys and Jacqui Lait, who were unapologetic in arguing for the need to discuss the liberalisation of the abortion law. Meanwhile, a Labour government, with a majority to pass any law it deems fit, thwarted progressive reform on abortion. It is notable that it is a Liberal Democrat MP, Evan Harris, who has coordinated the pro-choice campaign, and to him we owe a deep debt of gratitude. Labour MP Diane Abbott has also been uncompromising in her support for abortion law reform in Northern Ireland, despite intense pressure from her government. It is time the leaders of New Labour showed the same gumption as these MPs and allowed a full and free debate about liberalising abortion services.

Ann Furedi is the chief executive of BPAS (British Pregnancy Advisory Service). She is writing here in a personal capacity. BPAS has been a registered charity since 1968, and is the UK’s leading not-for-profit sexual healthcare provider. BPAS carried out 55,000 terminations of pregnancy last year; 92 per cent of all treatments carried out by BPAS. Anne is speaking in the session Abortion: the hard arguments at the Battle of Ideas festival at the Royal College of Art, London on 1&2 November.

Previously on spiked

Stuart Derbyshire offered tips to help pressure your MP into keeping with the 24 week limit. Jennie Bristow restated the moral case for women’s right to choose and offered 24 reasons to keep 24 weeks. Ann Furedi urged officials to stop playing politics with abortion. Ellie Lee took a look at the history of the abortion debate and made the case for Early Medical Abortion (EMA). Or read more at spiked issue Abortion.

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