In the same week that the Minister for Women, Maria Miller announced that she would back a reduction in the abortion limit from 24 to 20 weeks, the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt has announced that he backs the reduction of the limit further, to just 12 weeks.
Miller’s support of lowering the abortion limit from the current 24 weeks to 20 weeks, is not a decision backed by medical science, or the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, which announced in 2009 that it had found no medical evidence to justify such a cut. Similarly, Hunt’s support for a 12 week limit on abortions, though a decision he says he came to “after studying the evidence”, although he hasn’t yet cited the evidence for this decision. He has also denied that his faith has been one of the driving forces for his decision.
But just as Miller’s support for a 20 week limit has been met with derision, so has Hunt’s desire to cut the limit to 12 weeks, a decision slammed by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, who have criticised Hunt’s stance on abortion. Speaking to The Times their spokesperson Kate Guthrie said:
“The politicisation of women’s health is absolutely shocking. Politicians talk about putting patients at the centre, which is quite right.
How is the woman at the centre of her healthcare with something like this?
If everybody had to have abortions by 12 weeks, my worry would be that women would be rushed into making decisions: ‘I have to have an abortion now or I can’t have one.’
That’s an absolute shocker. You will absolutely create mental health problems if you start dragooning women into making decisions before they have to.”
Abortion is a sensitive issue; it is a difficult issue for some people, but above all else, it is an issue that should concern the women who are experiencing a surprise pregnancy. Women deserve the right to have autonomy over their own bodies, we are entitled to make the decision to end or continue a pregnancy if that is what we want to do. The decision to have an abortion is a difficult one, and is influenced by many factors, not least by the existing time limits.
Let me be frank, Miller and Hunt’s desire to lower the abortion limit will not mean fewer abortions will be carried out. It will mean that women that rely on the NHS will be forced to make a decision with very little time to spare, while women with money will be able to afford to access an abortion in other countries with a higher time limit. Those women without the means to pay for their own abortion, or ability to travel to another country to have one will be left with fewer options and a lot of desperation and worry. Desperation will cause women who want to end their pregnancy to turn to unlicensed backstreet abortion which led to hundreds, if not thousands of women contracting serious illnesses, becoming infertile or dying from their injuries. The amount of women who became ill or died following an illegal abortion before 1967 cannot be verified, but it is estimated that 47,000 women have died because of unsafe abortion. Is this what we want for women in the UK?
Unwanted pregnancy rates need to be targeted by the government, but not by reducing the abortion time limit. Improving access to contraception would help deal with the issue. This has been proven time and time again by studies, with the most recent one, carried out by Washington University in St Louis, concluding that better access to contraception means fewer abortions. In addition, improving pre-natal testing for genetic abnormalities, would help make parents more aware of any issues with a pregnancy well in advance of the 24 week mark. As would working to stop end any delays that some women considering abortion may face.
So, Miller, you’re Minister for Women, start acting like you’re on our side; stop describing yourself as “a very modern feminist” and trust women to make the right decisions about our own bodies and futures. As for Hunt, the Health Secretary should recognise that lowering the abortion limit will not mean fewer abortions, it will mean fewer documented abortions and more women putting their lives at risk in order to end a pregnancy that they either cannot or will not continue with due to choice, or the health of the foetus. Late abortion is accounts for a very small percentage of abortions in the UK, less than 2% of the 200,000 abortions carried out in England and Wales in 2011, were late-term abortions.
If Hunt and Miller were really interested in stopping unwanted pregnancies, they would start by looking at access to contraceptives and improving sex education, not by punishing women who have an unexpected or non-viable pregnancy. This is the latest step in the Conservative’s war on women, and we must fight to make sure that all women have access to safe and legal abortion – should they need or want one.