Rosie Woods answers frequently asked questions about the current threats to abortion rights.
What is all the fuss about? Women have the right to choose to have an abortion in the UK don’t they?
No, women do not have the right to choose!
First, though Northern Ireland is part of the UK the 1967 Abortion Act does not apply there. Nowhere in the island of Ireland do women have access to safe, legal abortion.
Abortion law is very limited: usually abortion is available only up to 24 weeks and has to be agreed to by two doctors using strict criteria.
Abortion is only available if continuation of a pregnancy would cause more harm than a termination.
Later abortions, up to term, are legally allowed only if there is risk of death or grave injury to the woman, or if there are serious foetal abnormalities.
This cumbersome procedure puts pressure on women to question their reasons for wanting a termination; italso enables the one in 10 doctors morally opposed to all abortion to undermine and obstruct women seeking abortion.
Women who, for whatever reason, have not obtained or are unable to obtain a termination, and induce a miscarriage are criminalised under the Offences Against the Person Act and can be charged with manslaughter or murder.
Finally, the rights we have are not secure; they are under constant attack and have already been eroded with a reduction in time limits from 28 to 24 weeks in 1990.
There are legal limits on abortion but at least women have access to abortion on the NHS, don’t they?
In 2011 96% of UK abortions were carried out under the NHS. However, there are variations in regional funding and waiting times vary a lot.
In normal circumstances a woman must first go to her GP then await a referral to a clinic or hospital. There she attends an initial consultation and is booked in for a termination.
This is a long process and it is not unusual for women to wait for three weeks for an NHS abortion.
For some the delay wipes out the possibility of having a medical abortion; beyond a certain point women must undergo a more intrusive and unpleasant surgical procedure.
Marie Stopes International, which holds NHS contracts to provide local abortion services in many parts of the country, will accept a referral from one telephone call and aim for a woman to receive a termination within 48 hours.
But mainstream NHS standards can be poor; women who do not live in an area with specialist clinics or who cannot afford to pay for a speedy abortion will have to wait.
Without safeguards couldn’t vulnerable women be forced into abortion against their will?
One of the arguments anti-abortionists use is that many women are coerced into having an abortion by family, partners or even their employers; and that they face threatened or actual violence to make them comply.
The anti-abortionists conveniently forget that many women are forced by family or partners to continue with unwanted pregnancies.
We are not pro-abortion, we are pro-choice. Action to defend women’s right not to face violent coercion in any form is part of our campaign for freedom of choice.
Shouldn’t there be safeguards against terminations being carried out on the basis of gender?
Large numbers of terminations are carried out across the globe because of gender preference. Many of these are in countries with a very strong preference for male children. In China this has been exacerbated by the one-child policy.
The problem here is that for many families the child’s gender has serious financial implications; the termination of female foetuses is inextricably linked to poverty, financial conventions in marriage, and cultural attitudes to women.
In India sex identification is illegal. However, if this were strictly enforced the result would be more violence against women who bear unwanted girls and more murders of female infants. Any successful prevention of women from accessing terminations based on gender (i.e. through heavy state intervention) will not stop those terminations taking place but will only force women into unsafe procedures.
We are for a woman’s right to choose, whatever her motivation, although we would simultaneously work towards a world in which women are considered equal to men and bearing a female child would not be considered a failure.
In a similar vein, isn’t termination based on foetal abnormality disableist?
There are many different foetal abnormalities which can be identified prior to birth. Some mean a child has a very poor prognosis and shortened life, some will need serious medical intervention in the early years or longer, or that the child will have a long term physical or mental disability.
An individual woman’s capability and desire to become a parent to a child which might have long term and demanding physical or special needs will be unique to them.
We live in a world that disables people further and where support services are nonexistent or stretched.
Every parent should be a willing parent and every child should be a wanted child. If a woman does not wish to have a child with a disability then that choice should be respected.
That decision has no bearing on the rights and services children and adults with disabilities living in the world should enjoy.
To fully support a woman’s right to choose we must also campaign for society to properly support families with children with disabilities.
Shouldn’t questions about foetal pain and viability be taken into account? Shouldn’t there be some upper limit?
A key part of the anti-abortionists’ argument for reducing the time limits for abortion rests on foetal viability, that is, the age at which the foetus can survive outside of the womb. The current consensus is that below 24 weeks babies very rarely survive. What if they could?
We need to go back to the basis of pro-choice thinking. We are for a woman’s right to choose whether she wishes to become a parent and we are for every child to be a wanted child. From this standpoint, the question of foetal viability is simply not relevant to the question of abortion.
In fact, even when babies are born extremely prematurely, they do not just survive unaided. They are viable only because of medical intervention, and the driving force for that medical intervention is the desperate wish of the parents for their wanted child to survive.
Even so, discussions are had about prognosis with parents and in some cases interventions which could be made are not because the parents do not wish to continue.
To impose an upper limit is to enforce a cut-off point for a woman to choose if she wants to become a mother and it turns the woman into an incubator for the unwanted unborn child.
Most important, though, is that emotive arguments about late abortion are used by those who oppose all abortion in order to sway opinion to their side.
The facts are these: in 2011 there were 189,931 abortions in the UK. Of these, 78% were performed before 10 weeks, 91% before 13 weeks and 98% before 20 weeks. Only 136 were performed after 24 weeks and only 26 of these at 32 weeks.
There are many reasons why women have late abortions. These include: presenting late for assessment, so abnormalities are not detected early on; the women’s circumstances change; they have been hiding an unwanted pregnancy, etc.
We want services that are accessible to women and allow them to get an abortion as early as possible — the safest and least distressing course for a woman. But we must demand that women have access to abortion as late as necessary so that they have a full choice.
The anti-abortionists are in a minority. What harm can they do?
Surveys show that the majority of people in the UK support a woman’s right to have an abortion within the current law.
Those opposing all abortion are a minority but the later the abortion the more tenuous levels of support become, which makes the campaigning activities of anti abortionists very dangerous.
They use emotive pictures and arguments as well as smears and lies about abortion providers in order to cause hysteria about termination. The hope is to affect legislation.
Recently we have also seen an increase in US-style intimidatory tactics by anti-abortion groups such as SPUC and Abort67 outside abortion clinics. These people accost women going for a termination and subject them to emotional battery by showing posters of late-term foetuses and allegedly film women entering clinics.
It is vital that the feminist and pro-choice movement combats these people and that we are not complacent about the level of threat they pose.