Feminist Issue: Lowering the Abortion Limit

Tory Women’s Minister Maria Miller recently said that she thought the abortion limit should be reduced from 24 weeks to 20 weeks. I asked Jenny Rathbone, Labour Member of the Welsh Assembly, what she thought and this was her answer:

“Maria Miller’s proposal is an assault on women’s right to choose. Over 90% of abortions take place before 13 weeks gestation. But the tests for Down’s Syndrome and other abnormalities are not accurate until 16-18 weeks into the pregnancy, so women only find out if they have a damaged or malformed foetus at about 20 weeks.”

“The 24 week time limit allows women to make an informed choice. Women should not be forced to go ahead with a pregnancy if they do not feel able to cope with a disabled child. Having Maria Miller trying to interfere in this difficult decision is deeply unhelpful.”

On Question Time two weeks ago – with Grant Shapps, Caroline Flint, Simon Hughes, Benjamin Zephaniah and Cristina Odone – Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s announcement that evidence suggests the limit should be reduced to 12 weeks was discussed. Watch the episode here.

Labour’s Caroline Flint said that she believes there should be a free vote in parliament – for male and female ministers – but says that the question at the heart of the issue is: “When does it begin to matter that you override a woman’s decision that she wants to make about whether to continue her pregnancy?”

She went on to explain that “The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Nursing and the British Medical Association have reaffirmed what they said in 2008 – there is no scientific evidence to suggest that the viability of a foetus between 20 and 24 weeks has changed.”

Telegraph columnist Cristina Odone disagreed with Flint, suggesting that there is plenty of evidence that many foetuses do survive at 24 weeks. But explained that, as a Catholic, she was against abortion.

One of the issues facing abortion, and the woman’s right to choose, is that men will never physically experience an unwanted pregnancy – and so some people believe that they shouldn’t have a say in what decision a woman makes about her body.

Benjamin Zephaniah said that, as a man, he feels he should have no say in whether a woman should have an abortion unless he’s attached to the woman. And also re-stated Flint’s point that the decision to abort is not a casual decision for any woman.

Simon Hughes began by sharing his Christian belief that “abortion is not a desirable thing to happen” but said that it should to be legal and available. He agreed with Flint that evidence suggests a foetus will only survive outside of the body at 24 weeks, or very close to it and so the limit need not be reduced on the grounds of foetal survival.

My feeling is that it would be more beneficial to women who find themselves pregnant – and do not know whether or not they want to go through with the pregnancy – to be offered free, impartial advice about their options than government legislation dictating their path.

It’s interesting that whilst Northern Ireland has recently opened its first private abortion clinic, in England the government are discussing whether or not abortion should be made less available. It feels like we’re moving backwards rather than forwards…

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