A Woman’s Right to Choose

Louise Whittle

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'ConnorOn the 21st June 2006 Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor had a meeting with health ministers calling for lowering the 24-week abortion limit at Department of Health. Because of the technological advances it means that the abortion laws are outdated.

The DoH have stated that the "government has no plans to change the law  over abortion".

It does cause extreme concern that there is a constant threat of chipping away of the 1967 Act. In the States there has been a vote to ban abortion in South Dakota (and other states have followed suit) and Bush has packed his mates in the Supreme Court so Roe v Wade is hanging by a thread.

In Britain the question of abortion rights has been on the left's back burner for some time. There is certainly no large-scale campaigning and there is little, if any, debate on the issue.

Globally there is a huge problem of a lack of access to safe abortion and a quarter of the world's women live in countries where abortion is criminalised more or less completely, often only allowing abortion if the life of the woman is at risk. This contrasts with approximately 80,000 deaths each year that are the result of women being forced to have unsafe abortions. This means that about every six minutes a woman dies from an illegal termination. The 'pro-life' campaigners continue to have a lot of deaths to answer for.

The World Health Organisation estimates that 20 million of the 46 million pregnancies that are terminated every year are carried out under unsafe conditions or in an adverse social or legal climate.

A front page headline in January 2006 of the normally liberal The Observer read: "Women demand tougher laws to curb abortions". The paper was commenting on the results of a Mori survey, which found that 47% of women believe that the time limit for abortion should be cut from the present 24 weeks. The Observer also reported that Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor thought that there had been a "moral awakening" over the past few years over the issue.

In many countries abortion is treated for all intents and purposes as a criminal offence in virtually all circumstances. In Europe this includes the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Malta and Portugal. Poland has allowed a similar situation to arise. Generally legal terminations only take place in the most extreme circumstances. This leads to a lot of women being forced to travel to other countries such as Spain and Britain to obtain abortions.

It is estimated that 20,000 illegal abortions are performed in Portugal each year. As a result of complications during such operations 5,000 woman have to attend hospital each year and about 100 women have died unnecessarily during the last 20 years. A woman in Portugal is up to 150 times more likely to die from an abortion than a woman living in the Netherlands. In Kenya, 30%-50% of maternal deaths are due to unsafe abortions.

In autumn 2000, the International Planned Parenthood Federation (European Network) published a comprehensive review of grounds on which abortion is permitted in Europe. They estimated that 26 of the 37 countries reviewed have abortion laws that allow the procedures without restrictions in the first trimester.

In the Netherlands, which has one of the lowest abortion rates in the world, the law permits abortion virtually on request at any time between implantation and 'viability', if performed by a physician in a licensed hospital. This is within a framework which includes universal sex education, easily accessible family planning and a provision of emergency contraception.

In the United States there has been a plethora of attacks on reproductive rights, not least late abortions. The infamous Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act became law in autumn 2003, but was declared unconstitutional by two federal appeals courts on January 31. The courts stated that the act lacks an exception for cases in which a woman's health is at stake.

The matter rests with the Supreme Court, which will now resolve the constitutionality of this law. Unfortunately, Senate passed the Unborn Victims of Violence Act by a vote of 61 to 38 votes on March 25 2004. Currently, 29 states have laws recognising killing of an unborn foetus as homicide. This act, also known as the Laci and Conner law, came about when Laci Petersen, who was pregnant at the time, was murdered by her husband. He was found guilty of murdering not only his wife, but also their unborn son, Conner.

Mirroring this case, the act elevates the legal status of the foetus to that of a social being, at any stage of development, when carried in the womb. The Petersen case represented a brutal and tragic crime, but legislation  on the basis of singular events make for exceedingly bad law - in this instance a back-door attempt to ban abortion.

And early 2006 South Dakota Senate voted yesterday to ban abortion in nearly all circumstances except to save the woman's life. The Supreme Court has already agreed to take up the federal abortion ban in its next term. At issue there is whether women's health and safety remain a priority and whether women and their doctors, rather than judges and politicians, will make private medical decisions.

We will have to wait and see what happens in the South Dakota case and whether this violates Roe v. Wade. The Bush administration is chipping away at abortion rights and reproductive rights overall. These attacks threaten the health and lives of women. And Bush has been packing the courts with anti-abortionist supporters. Is a full scale attack on Roe v. Wade on its way?

There have been further attacks such as the 'global gag' rule which denies US foreign assistance to organisations funding abortion services. Then there is the emphasis on 'abstinence only' education, and the freezing of funds for family planning programmes. It is now a federal crime to transport a minor across state lines for an abortion, while the use of condoms, the pill and other forms of contraceptives is increasingly condemned.

BlancoWithin the past couple of weeks Louisiana Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco signed into law a ban on most abortions, which would be triggered if the U. S .Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade In Ohio, there are attempts to make it illegal to perform ANY abortion in Ohio even if the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest. Increase the penalties for offences from a misdemeanour to a felony. And the fact it could be a crime to transport anyone across county to state lines to obtain an abortion. The percentage of all abortions at 20 weeks or more is small. It has remained at between 1% and 1.6% of total terminations for many years. For example, in England and Wales during 2002, there were 175,932 abortions, of which 2,874 were performed after 20 weeks.

Late abortions are rare and certainly the less bureaucracy, the more likelihood that late abortions would be reduced (the primary providers for late abortions are the independent sector, as opposed to the NHS). But some women (from the scared and naive teenager to the older person who thinks she is hitting the menopause) do not realise they are pregnant until quite late. And restrictive laws themselves cause delays - for example, forcing women to become 'abortion tourists' and make arrangements to travel to a country where the termination can be carried out.

For whatever reasons, even if abortion were 'on request' up to 12 weeks and the time limits were reduced, there would always be women who will need a late abortion and we must defend that right.

In Ireland, many women find ways of overcoming the restrictive and oppressive abortion laws. It is estimated that over 6,000 women (probably more, as women travel to other parts of Europe as well as Britain) leave Ireland every year to seek an abortion - many have to borrow the money to travel and many will need late abortions due to the red tape and bureaucracy.

Access to sex education and free contraception is equally vital. An example is the morning-after pill - demand for Levonelle increases over holiday periods (i.e., summer and Christmas), but, with GPs' surgeries and pharmacists closed, accessibility is limited. Therefore advanced prescription is an important service, although many women do not know they can request it, according to the Family Planning Association. And Levonelle costs £24 if you buy it over the counter - again highlighting the problem of accessibility for poorer women.

Couple of months ago, the editor of Cosmo Girl delivered a petition to Downing Street demanding better sex and relationship education in schools. The 'Just say know' campaign revealed that a third of teens thought sex and relationship education they had received was "rubbish" and more than 80% felt it could be better.

We need a pro-choice campaign that encompasses all of these demands, and ensures that a woman's right to control her own body is paramount. We need to fight against the dictates of religious and state morality and for a system which supports sex education and provides free and accessible contraception, including the morning-after pill.




June 2006

> > home page > >