Last night, MPs voted down amendments to the Human Fertility and Embryology Bill seeking to reduce legal access to abortion to the first 24, 22, 20, 16 or even 12 weeks of pregnancy. In line with the scientific evidence on the subject (as picked over by the Select Committee on Science and Technology in their report of October 2007), the Commons decided that there was no case for changing the current 24 week limit. The evidence on foetal development and viability presents no case for changing the laws on abortion, and MPs voted accordingly.
This is excellent news for people who like their policy humane and evidence-based. Reading the debate through, it is reassuring to see parliamentary representatives discussing the EPICure 1 and EPICure 2 studies, and basing their decisions on the data. And it is profoundly depressing to read the pro-life response to peer-reviewed research:
“I cannot disagree with a body of evidence, but neither can I agree that abortion at 24 weeks is acceptable.”
– Clare Curtis-Thomas, MP (Crosby, Labour)
Curtis-Thomas’s stated objection to the 24-week limit, and her reason for proposing a 12-week limit in its place, is on the grounds of viability: “I believe that many Members on both sides of the House are convinced that, given the opportunity, far more babies born and delivered at 23 weeks would be viable, and that we therefore have to protect them.” Informed that the survival rates of infants born at 22 and 23 weeks gestation are extremely low, Curtis-Thomas announces that she accepts the evidence – evidence which proves her premise is flawed – and refuses to give the evidence any sway over her own thinking. Which is, if you think about, rather a horrific thing for someone to say in the middle of a parliamentary debate.
Curtis-Thomas was speaking in support of an amendment tabled by Edward Leigh, seeking to restrict legal access to abortions to the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. After making some conciliatory noises about the pro-choice argument (“I understand the strongly held views of many people who feel that they have to defend the rights of women to make a choice about something in their own body”, he said, which is quite a different matter to sharing in the belief that women have a right to make a choice about something in their own body), Leigh made this statement:
“In modern Britain, the most dangerous place to be is in one’s mother’s womb, which should be a place of sanctity. Ninety-eight per cent. of abortions are social. Only 1.3 per cent. are because of foetal handicap and 0.4 per cent. are because of the risk to the mother’s life. It is a bleak picture of modern Britain.”
What is a social abortion anyway? It’s a handy little phrase which plays off of uses like “social drinking” to suggest abortions for convenience, undertaken by selfish women who cannot bear to submit to maternity. But in the debate over the HEF Bill, another amendment sought to force providers of IVF to consider the importance of the father-figure to the welfare of the child before offering fertility treatment. That is one example of a social consideration – and while I am happy that the “Conditions of Licenses for Treatment” were left unchanged, I agree strongly that anyone who is going to have a child should consider whether they are able to provide a stable family for the child. In the case of late-term abortions, many of these occur when the family unit breaks down: faced with the prospect of becoming a single mother, the pregnant woman decides that she cannot raise a child alone and has an abortion. She makes this decision for social reasons, and rightly so.
Anecdote is a poor basis for an argument, but if parliamentarians feel justified in offering their own religious beliefs for consideration, my own experience of the abortion laws must be worth at least as much as that. At 20, midway through university and while taking the pill (taking it badly, as it turned out, but there you go) I found out that I was pregnant. It took me 12 weeks to realise this: I didn’t want to be pregnant, I didn’t think I could be pregnant, and I could have gone on in ignorance for some weeks longer if I hadn’t had a routine pregnancy test while renewing my prescription for the pill.
If the Leigh amendment had been law, my life and my baby’s life would have been decided right then, regardless of my ability to care for a child. Fortunately, my doctor was able to assure me that I had several weeks to come to a decision, and I was able to go back to my boyfriend and assess our social circumstances. We had a stable, long-term relationship and families who could support us, and I decided that I did want this baby – much to my own surprise. The right to choose meant that I was able to make a positive decision to become a mother. Without that choice, I could easily have felt trapped, bitter and resentful of the child; with that choice, I am married with two children whom I love very much, and to whom I can give a safe and comfortable home. Choices like mine don’t turn up so much in the statistics on abortion, but being able to choose whether or not to have a baby – even when the pregnancy itself was not chosen – is one of the most precious rights we have, for the welfare of both mother and child. Because what happens to the child who isn’t wanted, or who is born into social circumstances insufficient to his or her welfare, is more grotesque than abortion by a long, miserable way.