Comment: Time to review the abortion act

By Alistair Thompson

Last week saw the first evidence session of a new parliamentary commission examining abortion on the grounds of disability.

The commission chaired by MP Fiona Bruce will investigate if the 1967 legislation is fit for purpose, discriminatory and in need of updating as some of the terminology seems seriously outdated and elastic. For example the law does not define what "seriously handicapped" means, allowing a broad interpretation.

The Department for Health revealed this includes foetuses with cleft palate and club foot. But both of these conditions can be corrected with surgery.

So how then can the foetuses with these conditions be described as "seriously handicapped"? 

So, while I wish Mrs Bruce and those on the panel well, the scope of the inquiry is limited by focusing on around 4,000 abortions that take place on these grounds each year.

It will not address the 98% of abortions which have nothing to do with disability – near 190,000 per year. No-one ever envisaged such a tally when abortion was legalised 45 years ago. In the early 1970s there were only 600 abortions a year.

And what is particular shocking has been the increase in the number of women having multiple abortions.

There is growing concern among many doctors that abortion is now seen as just another form of contraception.

The architects of this legislation would be horrified by this. What was meant to empower women by giving them a real and meaningful choice has been corrupted.

And the last time this topic was discussed was nearly five years ago. But at the time serious debate did not take place. Those questioning the status quo drew heavy flak from those who felt it had to be protected and as insults flew the central issues were simply brushed aside.    

While the heat and passion around this issue has not diminished, the facts cannot be ignored.

No one can deny that there has been a significant advancement in medical science over the last 45 years. Increasing number of babies are surviving at 24 weeks, or below, so we have the absurd situation where doctors are battling to save premature babies in one part of the hospital are ending life in another part at exactly the same point of gestation.

Now there are those who say that babies born at below 24 weeks have little chance of surviving and generally suffer from profound disabilities, but research shows wide ranges in survival rates. At the best neonatal units, such as in Minneapolis, Minnesota, even a few years ago 80% of babies born at 24 weeks and 66% of babies born at 23 weeks survived.

And in 2008 a study from University College London confirmed the data in a UK context and showed that the level of disability in premature babies was much less than was commonly believed.

In that same year research presented to parliament, highlighted research by Professor Sunny Anand from the University of Arkansas – It suggested that foetuses may well be able to feel pain before previously expected and possibly as young as 18 weeks.

And anyone who has seen the amazing high resolution 3D ultrasound images pioneered by Professor Stuart Campbell, showing babies, yawning, stretching and sucking their thumbs cannot fail to be moved to ask is the current law that allows abortion up to 24 weeks and 40 weeks for disability cases still fit for purpose?

I believe it is not.

Britain has the most liberal abortion laws in Europe. The termination limit of up to 24 weeks of pregnancy is double the limits in France and Germany and six weeks later than in Sweden or Norway.

And the grounds for which most abortions are granted are at best misleading and at worst – as has been suggested by doctors like Dr Peter Saunders – "technically illegal".

This is because they are carried out on grounds that continuing with the pregnancy constitutes a greater risk to a mother’s mental health than having an abortion does.

The legislation is very clear on the subject saying that a termination might take place: "To prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman; or if the pregnancy would put the mother's life at risk; or if the child…would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped."

And it is the mental wellbeing of the mother that accounts for nearly 98% of all the abortions in this country.

But a study carried out by the Royal College of Psychiatrists in 2011 found that there was no evidence to show that having an abortion posed less risk to mental health than continuing with an unwanted pregnancy.

Given all of these facts, it appears as if the legislation is not only out of date, but is being used incorrectly.

So after 45 years it is time to review the legislation and address the fact that we have slept walked into situation that sees 190,000 abortions take place every year, because it’s not just the unborn that we are failing but the mothers as well.

Alistair Thompson was the Conservative candidate for West Bromwich East at the last general election. He runs Media Intelligence Partners, a PR and campaign consultancy.

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