Abortion Rights Upheld for Women

Abortion Rights Upheld for Women

The Pro Choice majority can celebrate today after a reduction to the abortion time limit was voted against in Parliament last night.

The threat to abortion rights had come with an amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill tabled by Nadine Dorries, a Tory MP, that called for a reduction in the limit from 24 weeks to 20. Less than 2% of abortions take place after 20 weeks gestation, yet Dorries argued that such terminations are no longer moral since she believes modern medical advancements could help babies born below 24 weeks to survive.

However, Nadine Dorries was deemed to be arguing on the basis of highly unusual cases, since very few babies survive when born so prematurely and those surviving babies often becoming physically damaged and severely disabled. The shared view of the British Medical Association (BMA), the British Association of Perinatal Medicine (BAPM), the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) is that: ‘there is no evidence of a significant improvement in the survival of preterm infants below 24 weeks’ gestation, in the UK, in the last 18 years. The major development since 1990 has been an improvement in the survival of babies born at 24 weeks and over, but not below this gestation’.

Still, with such an emotive subject at hand, many were worried that the medical evidence would be overlooked and that the discussion would be hi-jacked by anti-abortionists. Over 1000 pro-choice supporters made sure their opinion was added to the debate by protesting outside Parliament as MPs debated amendments for the time limit.

The protest, organised by Abortion Rights, was passionate, heartfelt and very loud! Pro-choicers waved pink placards and chanted at passers by, their large and lively number in contrast to the much smaller group of anti-abortionists who had gathered to sing hymns nearby.

Whilst debates about foetus viability and medical advancements were heard loud and clear in the media run up to the vote, many pro-choicers were left wondering where women factored into the whole equation. As Kira Cochran had written in her piece ‘The End of Choice?’ in the Guardian on Monday the 19th;

“Many of those who have late-term abortions are the most vulnerable: teenagers who didn’t realise that they were pregnant until five months’ gestation; women with learning disabilities; those using methadone in drug rehabilitation programmes, which puts a halt to your periods. Women like the one I read of recently, whose partner started beating her up when she became pregnant, and who feared she would never be able to escape him if she had his baby. (In more than 30% of domestic violence cases, the abuse started during pregnancy.) Women who have suffered a severely traumatic episode – the death of a partner, or a child, for instance – who fear that the stress might affect foetal development.”

Though pro-choicers may have worried that the reality of such women was being overlooked in the debate, they should find comfort in the fact that the British Pregnancy Advisory Service published a 28-day audit of late-term abortion requests, to be distributed to MPs before the vote (also reported by Cochran). The audit detailed the stories of many women, all with different and difficult situations that meant they felt they could not have a child. Ann Furedi of BPAS said the stories “provide a really stark contrast to the abstract, philosophical and rather sterile discussion about viability and not viability. What this does is to take it woman by woman. The challenge that we’re putting to MPs is to look at this and think about it – what makes you think that the lives of these women would have been better if they’d had to continue their pregnancy?”

MPs voted on several time limit amendments last night, not just the 20 week amendment proposed by Dorries. This was thought to be a tactical attack on abortion rights, with the hopes of anti-abortionists being that they might confuse voters enough with such extreme choices that voters might make a compromise and plump for 22 weeks. Thankfully, any thin-ended-wedge was refused access into women’s reproductive rights with all amendments being voted against.

MPs voted against Edward Leigh’s amendment of a 12 week time limit by 393 votes to 71, a majority of 322.

Mark Pritchard’s amendment of a 16 week limit was voted against by 387 votes to 84, a majority of 303.

Nadine Dorries’s amendment of a 20 week limit was rejected by 332 votes to 190, a majority of 142.

MPs also rejected Ottaway’s amendment of 22 weeks by 304 votes to 233, an alarmingly slight majority of 71.

An attempt to make counselling compulsory was rejected by 309 votes to 173, a majority of 136.

Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, was quoted as saying; “Parliament has made the right decision, respecting women’s rights to access abortion and taking the advice of the medical world about what the appropriate time limit should be.”

After the vote last night, pro-choicers are breathing a sigh of relief. However, this is not the end of the abortion debate. Whilst anti-abortionists are bound to come back with more attacks on women’s reproductive rights, pro-choicers should also take stock of their position. We have found ourselves in a time when we are having to defend what rights we already have, rather than striving for better reproductive rights.

When thinking about why women might have late abortions, we can definately cite delay and misdiagnosis from the NHS as a factor for some women. It was thought that the proposed amendment to end the need for the consent of two doctors was dropped because voters in favour of that amendment might become more likely to lean towards cutting the time limit as a compromise. Still, abortion on demand, improved and equal access to abortion, as well as the extension of abortion rights to women in Northern Ireland, are all rights that must now be fought for.

MPs must also be made aware that we have been watching closely and carefully to see how they have voted in this debate. Find out how your MP voted here and let them know via letter, email or phone what you thought of their decision and how it will affect your future support of them.

Edit: Great images from the abortion rights protest here and here.

By: Sarah Barnes, 21.05.2008 | Comments (1)
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