A major debate on abortion will take place in the House of Commons on Monday 12 May, writes Farah Reza. Amendments to the government’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology bill will seek to limit women’s access to abortion and MPs have been given a free vote on them.
The mainstream media has given much coverage to anti-choice arguments that use notions of “foetal pain” and “foetal viability” as reasons to lower the legal time limit for abortion.
The issue of foetal pain has always been a hardcore anti‑choice argument. But much of the “evidence” used by anti‑abortionists is unsubstantiated and not peer-reviewed.
Research by Sunny Anand is a good example. His claims that foetuses can feel pain do not seem to be based on any evidence, with the majority of his work being based on newborn babies and pain, not foetuses.
He declined to submit any evidence to the government’s Science and Technology Committee, which considered developments relating to abortion last October.
The committee rejected his claims nevertheless, concluding that the evidence “does not indicate that pain is consciously felt, especially not below the current upper gestational limit of abortion.”
There is no mainstream, medically recognised evidence to support the view that foetuses feel pain.
The nervous system takes time to develop in the womb. A report in the British Medical Journal by Dr Stuart Derbyshire found that there is “good evidence” to show that foetuses do not feel pain, and that the neural circuitry for processing pain cannot be considered complete until 26 weeks – after the 24 week limit.
And the psychological processes that make sense of pain are not developed until after this stage.
Anti-abortionists also argue that babies can now survive earlier due to advances in medical technology, so late abortions performed shouldn’t be allowed. The evidence for this is problematic to say the least.
The Science and Technology Committee found that much of the research claiming that viability had significantly improved was referring to extremely rare cases where foetuses below 24 weeks old have survived only due to highly specialised equipment not available in most hospitals.
This evidence involved very small numbers and so was “far less accurate”. So, an extreme example would be a hospital with one baby surviving after being born at 23 weeks could claim to have a survival rate of 100 percent.
The committee looked closely at the results for survival rates of foetuses below 24 weeks. It found that, even if the foetus survived birth, many died later or survived with severe disabilities. Of those born at 23 weeks, only 1 percent survived with no disability, and of those born at 22 weeks, none survived with no disability.
It concluded that, “while survival rates at 24 weeks and over have improved they have not done so below that gestational point.
“Put another way, we have seen no good evidence to suggest that foetal viability has improved significantly since the abortion time limit was last set, and seen some good evidence to suggest that it has not.”
Doctors have voted overwhelmingly to keep the current time limit. Up to 80 percent of members of the General Medical Council voted to keep post-20 week abortions legal. The Royal College of Nurses and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists came to the same conclusion.
So-called “late abortions” – those that take place after 20 weeks – are a focus for anti-abortionists because 83 percent of people in Britain support a woman’s right to choose.
So they hope to chip away at our rights gradually, and think that “late abortions” are an easy target. Their focus on this distorts the reality of abortion in Britain.
Late abortions are very rare – less than 1 percent of all abortions in Britain take place after 22 weeks. It is women in the most difficult circumstances that need them.
These include women who do not realise they are pregnant because of failed contraception, ignorance or mistaking symptoms for the menopause. Other women go into denial if they have suffered rape, or if they are very young.
Sometimes there may be a crisis with an existing child that shifts the priorities of the pregnant woman, or a change in circumstance that makes the pregnancy unviable. Other women experience delays in the NHS.
The decision to have a later abortion isn’t taken lightly – the surgical procedure for a post-20 week abortion is more physically traumatic than for earlier abortions. The tiny proportion of women who access an abortion after 20 weeks do so because they are desperate.
The current arguments around the time limit are taking place because women in Britain do not have the right to an abortion. Abortions are granted on medical grounds.
We need to fight for improvements in the law. But we also have to fight hard to defend our current rights so that the carpet isn’t snatched away from under our feet.
Women access abortions because they need them. It is the woman, not some vague idea about the “unborn”, that matters. A woman should not be forced to stay pregnant and give birth to a child against her will.
We have to defeat the attack on abortion to show the bigots they cannot come back again and again to chip away at our rights.
Farah Reza is on the executive committee of Abortion Rights. Go to » www.abortionrights.org.uk