The Spectator

Britain must not import America’s abortion culture war

British politicians tend to avoid the issue of abortion. The subject divides America bitterly, yet Britain has opted for consensus. Now and again, however, a debate about abortion flares up – as it did this week after a number of pressure groups reacted with anger to the jailing of a mother of three who induced an abortion when eight months pregnant, using pills posted to her by the NHS. She pleaded guilty under the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 and will spend a year in jail. 

That, according to Clare Murphy, of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, is an outrage. She described Britain’s abortion law as ‘archaic’ and called for the end of criminal sanctions. One abortion charity asserted that ‘abortion is healthcare, yet it is still governed by a law from 1861, at a time when healthcare and society were completely different.’ In truth, abortion at such a late stage is illegal almost everywhere – and the modern trend, if anything, is towards tighter regulations given how much more can be done for unborn children.

To argue for complete decriminalisation of abortion is to devalue human life

Abortion has been legal since 1968 up to 24 weeks of gestation in most cases. It is available, free of charge, on the NHS, and not just in instances where the mother’s health is under threat, but for purely social reasons too. For children with severe disabilities, abortion may be performed legally up to the point of birth. Other later-term abortions remain criminal acts under the 1861 Act.

Nonetheless, we have a law that is more liberal than the vast majority of countries in the world – a 12-week limit is commonplace. In our country, 230,000 abortions are carried out every year. Such numbers do not suggest a country stuck in the 19th-century world of backstreet abortionists. 

Modern medicine has become very good at saving premature babies, who now account for one in every 13 births. Most babies who are born at 24 weeks survive. So should we automatically jail any woman who has an abortion after 24 weeks? To frame the argument in such terms, as many have tried to do this week, can mean overlooking many mitigating circumstances, from the condition of the baby to the mental health of the mother. But to argue for complete decriminalisation of abortion, as some have also done this week, is to devalue human life.

There is widespread support for abortion in Britain, but it’s a mistake to assume that a ‘modern’ country is one with more liberal laws. As science advances and we learn more about the life of a foetus, public opinion is likely to shift in favour of a lower limit than 24 weeks. A recent YouGov poll found that 47 per cent of people think the 24-week limit is about right, 21 per cent felt it should be decreased, and 2 per cent believed that abortion should be prohibited altogether. Only 10 per cent thought that the 24-week limit should be extended. 

Many media commentators might profess themselves ‘shocked’ that a woman who undertook an illegal abortion well past the time limit should be convicted of a criminal offence. They cannot claim to speak for the majority. Britain is, rather, a country with a loud minority which is forever trying to liberalise abortion laws further, against the wishes of the majority. 

The 24-week limit was set in 1990 on the basis of viability. Medicine believed that 24 weeks was the youngest age at which a foetus could survive as an independent being. Today, the survival rate at such a stage is about 60 per cent. At 27 weeks, it’s 90 per cent. Those who seek to extend abortion rights often assert that Britain is falling into the hands of a religious minority who are ‘attacking’ women’s rights. In reality, the changing public mood is a reflection of changes in medical science. 

No significant political party is trying to change the law to make it harder to procure an abortion. On the contrary, the loudest campaigning is mostly in the other direction. Many MPs who opposed the new Act to combat vandalism and obstruction at climate protests nevertheless backed an amendment which has made the mere act of protest itself unlawful in one particular instance: anti-abortion campaigners now find themselves in breach of criminal law merely for coming within 150 metres of an abortion clinic with the wrong opinion. One woman was recently arrested for silently praying close to a clinic.  

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It would be regrettable if we ended up importing US-style culture wars into the debate over abortion in Britain. Just as we could do without extremists who argue for the complete prohibition of abortion, even when a woman’s life is in danger, so we could do without the extreme elements who deny all rights to an unborn child and who, through euphemisms such as ‘right to choose’, try to obscure what abortion is.

This Spectator leader appears in the forthcoming issue of the magazine, out tomorrow.

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