Why Maria Miller is wrong about late-term abortions
The Minister for Women and Equality, Maria Miller, thinks the time limit for abortions should be reduced from 24 weeks to 20. She defines herself as a ”modern feminist”, and Nadine Dorries has said this is ”real feminism” – Nadine Dorries who, of course, proposed that abortion providers should not be allowed to provide counselling for women seeking abortion because of their “vested interest”. She preferred anti-abortion Christian groups who clearly have no bias or vested interest. Very feminist of her, wanting to restrict the choices of women. Miller says this is about “that very practical impact that late term abortion has on women” and “the way medical science has moved on”. She is presumably referring to the fact that it is now possible for a baby to be born at 24 weeks or less. That doesn’t mean it should.
A tangent here that you can skip if you want: I feel I should explain the terms I’m going to use in this post. I think pro-life is a misleading term. Hardline pro-life activists would prefer that a woman die rather than have an abortion; even those less fundamental who would ban abortion except when it would save a woman’s life apparently don’t realise, or don’t care, that where abortion is illegal, women die from having backstreet abortions. I find pro-choice less problematic: someone who is pro-choice wants women to have the choice to terminate a pregnancy, which does not restrict her other options. However, I prefer the term anti-abortion, and so the opposing term I will use is pro-abortion. That seems a more reasonable opposition to me than ‘choice’ vs. ‘life’. I hope that these are acceptable, although I’m not claiming to be neutral: I support a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy if she so wishes.
Late term abortions are very rare. 77.9% of abortions in the UK last year took place before 10 weeks (that data’s well worth having a look at for all sorts of reasons by the way), and 9% took place after 13 weeks. I can’t find the figure for abortions past 20 weeks for 2011; in 2008 it was 1.5% according to the BBC; the only source I can find for 2011 is this anti-abortion website which says it was 1%, but it’s not cited. As always, I have limited time and resources to do research, and it can be difficult to find unbiased information on this issue, especially when it comes to reasons for abortions after 20 weeks.
Unlike some other countries, in the UK there is no distinction made between abortions before 20 weeks and those between 20 and 24 weeks. Abortions after 24 weeks can only be performed:
if it is necessary to save the woman’s life; to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman; if there is substantial risk that if the child were born, s/he would have physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped (NHS website).
Although there is no legal distinction, from the testimony of women who have had abortions after 20 weeks – see also the BBC article linked to above – it seems that late-term abortions are often performed when severe birth defects are detected that would fulfil the final criterion in the list above, which would qualify an abortion after 24 weeks. Some very severe birth defects can only be detected late on in pregnancy. Anti-abortion organisations suggest that it is better for a baby to be born even if it will only live a few hours. That particular website cites the testimony of Karen Santorum, who felt her decision to have a baby that lived for two hours was the right one. I am not disputing whether it was the right thing for her, but it is not the right thing for all women. Many parents feel that terminating the pregnancy is better, if the baby that would result from carrying it to term will have to be kept alive artificially and be in a lot of pain.
This is the relatively uncontroversial side of late-term abortion: even people who are generally anti-abortion often sympathise with women who have terminated a pregnancy for these reasons. These are the stories of late-term abortions that are most publicised. But these are not the only circumstances under which abortions after 20 weeks happen. Sometimes women decide after 20 weeks that they do not want to have a baby. Sometimes they are not aware that they are pregnant until this stage; sometimes they have taken a long time to decide that they want to have an abortion, and then have to wait longer to have it; sometimes they are too scared earlier on to get an abortion. These women could have carried a pregnancy to full term, but they choose not to. And they deserve to have that choice as well. This website disparagingly quotes from doctors who have carried out late-term abortions because the mother has mental health problems – National Right to Life apparently don’t believe that depression is a serious mental health problem.
Other reasons that they apparently consider inadequate to justify a late-term abortion are “a planned or wanted pregnancy followed by the sudden death or desertion of the partner who is in all probability the bread winner”, “intellectually impaired women, who are unaware of basic biology”, and “extreme maternal immaturity i.e. girls in the 11 to 14 year age group”. I think these are more than adequate reasons. I do not think that bringing a child into the world is always the right thing to do if you can’t look after it. I am not the only one to think this. In this article, “I wish my mother had aborted me“, Lynn Beisner clearly lays out why it would have been better for her mother’s quality of life not to have her. Beisner is not angry or bitter – she loves her mother, and wishes her life could have gone differently.
This is not an easy issue to confront. I can absolutely understand why people think abortion is wrong, especially late-term abortion. But I believe that it is dangerous to restrict the choices women have over their own health, and the course of their lives. Having looked at the material available to me (which as I have already admitted is largely biased one way or the other and filtered through my existing bias), anti-abortion activists use late-term abortion as part of their horror story narrative, while glossing over or dismissing how and why this happens in reality.
By looking simply at the fact that some babies have been born before 24 weeks and survived, Maria Miller ignores both the medical and social reasons for late-term abortion. That doesn’t sound very practical to me.
P.S. Sorry this is late – back to uni this week and things have been hectic.