On 29 October the Commons Science and technology committee published a review of the 1967 Abortion Act. They made three main recommendations:
• Upholding the 24 week time limit for abortion;
• Removing the need for women seeking an abortion to get two doctors' signatures;
• Allowing nurses to perform first trimester abortions.
Around the review there had been a drive by the anti-abortion lobby and a small handful of highly vocal MPs, mainly men, mostly Tories, to chip away at abortion rights. They will not be pleased with these recommendations.
An end to the “two doctors’ signatures” clause and the implied improvement in accessibility of early abortions are especially positive move forwards for women. However, there is still a lot to fight for.
First of all there is no guarantee that the majority of MPs will concur with the review’s recommendations; it is possible that the already limited access to late abortions will become further restricted in exchange for a more liberal approach to earlier abortions.
Second the committee’s brief was to do with science — it had no mandate to look at the issue in terms of women’s choice, let alone women’s liberation! The findings of this review will be used to inform MPs debating an amendment
to the 1967 Abortion Act, as part of the Human Tissues and Embryos Bill. The committee ruled out examination of ethical or moral issues surrounding abortion time limits, saying it would take evidence on new medical interventions
and techniques that may increase the chances of survival of premature infants.
This reduces the argument surrounding time-limits to one of “foetal viability”; the rights of the woman remain unacknowledged. If medical advances meant, for instance, that a foetus was viable at 16 weeks our position should not
change, an abortion at 16 weeks and beyond should still be a woman’s right.
And the report itself states, “Because we recognise what the science and medical
evidence can tell us is only one of the many factors that are taken into account when legislating on this issue, we have not made any recommendations as to how MPs should vote.”
Social, ethical and moral issues will certainly not be excluded from the main debate; the prochoice movement cannot delude itself that there is a significant contingent of MPs feminist in ethics or morality. And was much controversy within the committee itself, culminating with two Tory MPs, Nadine Dorries and Bob Spink, refusing to put their names to the report. Their Minority Report contradicted the majority findings and put forward a series of what amount to antichoice, anti-women policies. Dorries and Spink accuse the Science and Technology Select Committee of being “hijacked” by “powerful vested interests” in the “abortion industry”.
Their response is a reminder of the kind of views held by some “members of the house”. Thirdly although the review does not advocate a reduction in the time limit, it does nothing to advocate an increase in the accessibility of abortions for women after 14 weeks. The British Medical Association, who gave evidence to the committee, warned that “changes in relation to first trimester abortion
should not adversely impact upon the availability of later abortions.” But Dr Vincent Argent, who gave evidence to the select committee, has proposed on Radio Four to make the abortion law more liberal under 16 weeks, but tougher there after. While he was not calling for an overall reduction in the time limit, he was recommending that the only proviso for abortions after 16 weeks should be “grave risk to physical or mental health” of the woman, i.e. no so called “social reasons”.
Many of the circumstances in which women seek late abortions would be ruled out: women who don’t know they are pregnant, who think they are menopausal, who are too frightened to acknowledge their pregnancy any earlier, or whose circumstances drastically change.
However, Argent also said that agencies such as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, or other, more expensive, private agencies may still provide abortions in these circumstances. As far as he was concerned if private clinics want to do late abortions, fine, their choice, but screw everyone who can’t access this or pay!
This approach backs up the nasty political consensus already in place. Already the NHS does not often do late abortions. Doctor Argent was frank about the fact that many NHS doctors already refuse abortions after 14 weeks and that many hospitals have arbitrary cut off points at 18, 16 or even 14 weeks. Some people
will be willing to go along with this consensus in exchange for the liberalisation of early abortions; it will hit hardest at the most vulnerable.
Finally while the call to allow “suitably trained and experienced nurses and midwives” to carry out abortions makes a lot of sense, there are criticisms of how it will be implemented.
The development of Early Medical Abortion allows for an easily-administered
procedure. Increasingly its availability could help cut down the damaging wait that many women currently have to suffer. But the situation is complex. Nurses are often best-placed to deliver person-centred care to patients. But nurses should not be left vulnerable to exploitation. The new service should not be approached as a money-saving scheme for the NHS. It needs adequate investment in training and support.
The early abortion recommendations do not address the problem of finding doctors who are willing to deliver late abortions; nor do they do anything to alleviate the current injustice of the “NHS postcode lottery” where a woman’s
access to an abortion is dependent on her geographical location. We cannot just fight on the basis of legalities; with the increasing privatisation of the NHS there are no guarantees of service provision or accessibility.
• If you want to get involved in organising direct action please come along to the Feminist Fightback planning meeting on Sunday 9 December. For more details please see www.feministfightback.org.uk.