Opinion: Abortion reform – handing power back to women

Despite being in the 21st century, we appear to value the approval of medical professionals, and their control over women’s bodies, more than we do women’s autonomy.

Last week it came to light in a Telegraph report that some abortion clinics – up to one in five – were performing abortions illegally. Doctors were pre-signing forms to permit abortions before they had seen the patient’s medical information. Why are so many good doctors not following the law?

Under the 1967 Abortion Act, termination of pregnancy is legal up to 24 weeks, as long as two doctors approve it. Not one, two.  Under current legislation, the right of women to make their own decisions about their own bodies is conditional on having permission. Ultimately, this is still a medical procedure, and a doctor should still ensure that an abortion (by whichever method) is not a danger to a woman’s health. But this should be a medical opinion, and not a moral one. Women should be able to go to a doctor and discuss their course of treatment, rather than have to seek the permission of two doctors.

The need for a second signature isn’t a matter of medical necessity.  The BMA and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists both believe a second signature for abortion is unnecessary and ‘anachronistic’).  Restrictions which have no ethical or medical basis are inexcusable. The news that doctors are pre-signing the relevant paperwork should also indicate how impractical this restriction is. Unwanted pregnancies are an emotional issue, and often a time-sensitive one. The delays that ensue from drawing the process out unnecessarily can be very distressing.

Abortion is often a difficult decision, and certainly not one you forget making. But this shouldn’t be a debate about the ethics of abortion itself, but who should be given the power to make that decision. The state, the church and doctors all have claims, but as Sally Sheldon pointed out last week in the Guardian, women ‘are far better placed to understand the implications for themselves and their families’. So let’s start treating them like the autonomous individuals they are.

Calls for an inquiry over pre-signing of forms give us an opportunity to reform this archaic legislation. So, we’ve set up an e-petition calling on the Government to amend the law to dispense with the need for the second signature. Please sign it, and make sure you share it with your friends. We can only reform this outdated legislation with your help.

You can also follow the Your Choice campaign on Twitter or on Facebook.

* Sophie Bridger is a former by-election candidate and President of Liberal Youth Scotland. She is Scotland’s diversity champion and lives in Glasgow.

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22 Comments

  • A sensitively-discussed approach to a controversial topic, with a good goal. Well done.

    *signs*

  • Andrew Emmerson 28th Mar '12 - 8:47pm

    I’m somewhat conflicted on this, I agree that as much power should be handed back to women on this issue, and I’d be very resistant on the whole as to lowering age limit etc,

    My concern on this is is thus: Has any work/research been done to test whether two doctor requirement prevents women from being unduly forced into abortion against their will?

    I wonder if it’s a safeguard to being forced?

    If it’s not then i’d be happy for the change to go ahead, if so then, surely there is other sensible ways around?

  • Richard Dean 28th Mar '12 - 9:47pm

    Opening up the debate again could bring the alternative possibility that anti-abortionists might reverse some of the progress made in the 1967 Bill.

    I think the argument is that a foetus is considered to be a living sentient and soulful human being at a certain date or stage, and that great caution is needed to protect that human being – more than other human beings since this one is so vulnerable. The two doctors are not so much “granting permission” as carefully checking each other’s judgments of whether the foetus has reached that certain stage – and the complaint is that pre-signing means that those important checks are not being made.

    Like it or not, the idea that women should be granted the “power” you demand would be seen by some to be quite wrong, and re-opening the debate could lead to a reduction of what little powers women do have in this matter.

  • Ruth Bright 28th Mar '12 - 9:52pm

    Sophie – I applaud you but why should a doctor’s permission be required at all for early abortion?

  • Spot on Sophie.

  • Sophie Bridger 29th Mar '12 - 2:46am

    Andrew – as far as I can tell there is no research of the kind that you mention. Frequently the second doctor doesn’t even see the patient, only their information, which would not really help prevent forced abortions.

    Stuart – Reopening the debate is controversial, but it is the right thing to do. Removal of the need for a second signatory is a good first step to take, and I think we should focus on that before we get to the more controversial areas of discussion.

    Richard – I understand your concern, but many are already concerned that pro-lifers within the Tory party are using the Telegraph story to press for stricter controls on abortion (see Nadine Dorries piece on Conservative Home). They are already threatening the little power women already have. The debate has been reopened, and we must respond.

    Ruth – Obviously, women’s autonomy is vital, and must be upheld – but abortion is still a medical procedure. There are many different kinds of abortion procedure, even at an early stage, and it’s surely right to get medical guidance on that.

    It was David Steele who brought in the Abortion Act in the first place, but I would never expect any party to pass policy on a conscience issue. This article is intended to motivate debate (as well as to publicise the petition) but I would never take this to conference, for that reason.

  • I think the second doctor thing is a form of oversight, reflecting the fact that abortion is considered a (sometime) necessary evil for society rather than a legitimate choice for a woman. Personally, I believe the law should be reformed to provide “abortion on demand” – the decision should be the woman’s alone – but even more pressing is the need to change the situation in Northern Ireland, a part of the UK where it is still illegal.

  • Ruth Bright 29th Mar '12 - 8:59am

    Sophie – Thank you again, it is a relief to know that women of your generation are fighting to uphold the rights that women of my generation (in my case born in the year of the ’67 Act) have mistakenly taken for granted. Of course you are quite right about medical advice – medical advice, yes. Medical permission – no.

  • John Richardson 29th Mar '12 - 9:38am

    I think this would be reasonable for early abortions where there is no risk that a child’s life will be taken. But later in pregnancy, say beyond 6-8 weeks, where the brain has formed and is beginning to function existing protection is already weak and I wouldn’t support weakening it further. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for two doctors to be required to confirm that there is an overriding medical reason before the termination is authorised.

  • Richard Dean 29th Mar '12 - 1:35pm

    I think that a foetus should have rights too. So I think that the issues can be seen in terms of balances and conflicts of rights. “Giving power back to women” looks like an oversimplification.

  • Ruth Bright 29th Mar '12 - 4:07pm

    John Richardson and Richard Dean – what duty of care do you believe the state has to a woman if it compels her to continue with an unwanted pregnancy?

  • Richard Dean 29th Mar '12 - 4:29pm

    Ruth, that could certainly be among the considerations in the balancing of conflicting rights and the consequent responsibilities. While it is certainly a relevant issue, it seems far from the present controversy in which pre-signing is perhaps being seen as evidence that doctors are not exercising their duty of care in the way that parliament intended.

    There are likely to be all sorts of duties and responsibilities in this complicated area, not to mention religious and other concepts of whether our society is sane and how people’s desires are manipulated by it. I suppose that that is one reason why parties are reluctant to have policies on the matter.

  • John Richardson 29th Mar '12 - 4:50pm

    what duty of care do you believe the state has to a woman if it compels her to continue with an unwanted pregnancy?

    You ask that question in a way which dehumanises the child, to which, btw, it is the mother who has a duty of care. Current law puts far too little emphasis on the child’s right to life. We are one of the few countries left that allows abortions up to viability long past the point where the nervous system is fully functioning. This is a very serious imbalance. In my opinion abortions should be prohibited beyond 8 weeks. Almost every other country in Europe has settled on 12 weeks. But if we are to continue with 24 weeks the very least we can do is make sure that late abortions are only signed-off for good medical reasons and that that those reasons are verified by another doctor. For pregnancies of less than 6 weeks, before there is any possibility of personhood, I support your proposal to streamline the process.

  • Ruth Bright 29th Mar '12 - 5:13pm

    Hi John – As someone who has actually carried two children, one for 39 weeks and one for nearly 42 weeks and had a strong sense of the personhood (ie I felt them move) of both children from 19/20 weeks I in no way wish to “dehumanise the child”. I simply believe that someone who wishes to prohibit abortion after eight weeks (when many very young or many pre-menopausal women wouldn’t have even realised they were pregnant) should explain what is to be done with and what support is to be given to those women who have to go through the great physical and psychological demands of pregnancy against their will.

  • John Richardson 29th Mar '12 - 6:07pm

    I simply believe that someone who wishes to prohibit abortion after eight weeks […] should explain what is to be done with and what support is to be given to those women who have to go through the […] demands of pregnancy against their will.

    The same support that is offered to others who exceed the time limits or don’t have medical grounds for termination. Looking at the statistics 90% of abortions in the UK are conducted at 12 weeks or less and 67% at 8 weeks or less. So the vast majority of women would be unaffected by a substantial reduction in the term limits. But since reducing the term limits is not on the table this is all a digression from the main discussion about what action against the embryo/foetus a woman should be allowed to take unilaterally. I posted my views on term limits only to explain why I think unilateral abortion would be okay up to a point but not beyond. I actually think it would be a reasonable compromise. 🙂

  • Richard Dean 29th Mar '12 - 6:29pm

    Perhaps I could mention a couple of other issues – I don’t know how relevant or important they are. One is the psychological and emotional trauma to the mother who has an abortion. This can include guilt that carries on for many years, or re-appear in later life. Another is the trauma to medical professionals, who in the case of late abortions may find it difficult not to believe they are killing a baby, and some of whom will see the body and have their human instincts wrenched. My ex-partner was a nurse and talked of this a little – though she had bad experiences in A&E too. Medical professionals have rights and feelings.

  • Richard Swales 29th Mar '12 - 6:42pm

    When we were expecting my daughter, our first child, my wife had to go into hospital at 14 weeks and we thought that we would lose the baby. Thankfully we didn’t and my daughter is nearly five years old now. My view is that when my wife was in hospital there were two patients, my wife and daughter, not only one.

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