Abortion: an automatic right?

Abortion is rarely out of the news these days. Although legal in most of the UK (it is not legal in Northern Ireland) since the 1967 Abortion Act, its availability remains contentious. There are frequent discussions about reducing the time limit from the current 24 weeks of pregnancy – the accepted point at which a fetus is considered viable. Some politicians think it should be reduced to 12 weeks.

It is often assumed that women have an automatic right to an abortion and that it is available on request, but the 1967 Act does not give women an automatic right to the procedure. It is allowed only after two doctors have certified that a woman can terminate a pregnancy on certain grounds. However, those grounds may be interpreted broadly and the decision is open to the clinician’s discretion.

A vocal minority of ‘pro-lifers’ continue to oppose abortion on principle, based on their beliefs about the sanctity of life, which they consider to begin at conception. They argue that the value of the fetus is equal to that of the mother. Nurses and doctors who oppose abortion can refuse to take part on the grounds of conscience.

Generally in the UK, abortion seems to be considered a problem – and not a solution to an unwanted pregnancy.

Abortion made the news again recently with the assertion that women were having abortions based on the gender of the fetus. This, it was claimed, could lead to a significant shortfall of girls, because female fetuses are being deliberately aborted in countries including Pakistan and Afghanistan to ensure that families have sons.

But as this Q&A – Sex Ratios and Abortion demonstrates, there is no war on female fetuses in the UK. The claim is insulting to women in general and to immigrant communities in particular. Further, it is outrageous to suggest that the use of antenatal scans should be curbed because women cannot be trusted to make moral and responsible decisions.

It’s sad that arguments like these are being used in 2014 to encourage restricting women’s continued need for abortion. It’s worrying that we are still having to fight for the most basic right of women to be able to control their fertility, and for abortion to be available as a necessary back-up to failed contraception or unwanted pregnancies.

Other arguments such as the status of the fetus also need to be challenged head on as Ann Furedi, the chief executive officer of BPAS, the leading UK abortion provider, did here when she said:

‘I believe it is wrong to accord the fetus an equal value to that of a woman. Wrong to reduce the status of a woman, with dreams, ambitions, memories, hopes, sense of self, sense of a difference she will make to the world... to a fetus – human DNA, living in the sense that it’s not dead, human in the sense that it’s not a gerbil, has no self-consciousness, does not even know it is alive... We are more than a beating heart, our DNA, our flesh and bones.’

I believe that it is time to review the 1967 Abortion Act. Women should not have to justify their need for abortion to politicians. It's a moral decision that they should be trusted to make for themselves. They should not be required to gain special permission to have this medical or surgical procedure. It is time for real change in this regard.

Brid HehirAbout the author

Bríd Hehir is a fundraising manager for Do Good Charity which sponsors nurse training and education in Africa. She worked in the NHS until 2011: – as a nurse, midwife and specialist heath visitor and latterly a senior manager. She is a regular contributor to spiked and is a Battle of Ideas Committee member.