The abortion debate is more complicated than arguing the rights of mums versus babies

It’s easy to assume the upcoming vote on abortion in Ireland is a black and white issue. A straight decision between the rights of an unwanted, unborn child versus the rights of a woman who doesn’t want to be pregnant.

Actually, it’s much more complicated than that. Let me tell you my story, as the nearly mum of a much wanted baby.

I’ve never had morning sickness so it’s really only if I’m overdue, very short tempered, very hungry and along with that little blue line that I know I’m pregnant. At 12 weeks, I went to the hospital for my booking in appointment. I told the midwife that I had a gut feeling that something was wrong.

She fetched a portable scan machine and we looked at the screen. I’ve seen 12 week old babies before. The heartbeat is obvious and they seem to bounce around the screen. Instead of a foetus, all we could see was a perfectly round shape with no movement at all. The midwife described it as a ‘blighted ovum’. Apparently, development had stopped at around 7 weeks gestation – 5 weeks ago.

But now the horror began. The midwife explained that despite the lack of a heartbeat, they were unable to do anything in case I had my dates wrong and I was only 7 weeks pregnant after all. Terminating unwanted babies is one thing, apparently, terminating wanted babies is much more difficult.

My only option was to return to the hospital the following week. If the ovum had not grown in that week, I could be offered a termination. For one very long week, I carried round a dead baby.

The current debate has made me wonder what happens to women like me in Ireland? It seems I don’t miscarry and as it isn’t currently possible to carry out a termination in Ireland, what then? It doesn’t bear thinking about. But think about it is exactly what we need to do.

My story has similarities with that of Savita Halappanavar. Like mine, Savita’s baby was much wanted. Savita’s waters broke at 17 weeks and like me, she didn’t miscarry straight away. The hospital refused to terminate a baby which had no hope of survival as it still had a heartbeat. Savita finally miscarried a dead baby, but suffering from septic shock and multiple organ failure, she too died.

I am thankful that in my part of the UK, I have more value than a foetus with no prospect of life. Savita was not so blessed.

* Lizzie Jewkes is Vice Chair of Liberal Democrat Women and Chair of the Lib Dem Christian Forum.

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  • Lorenzo Cherin 21st May '18 - 4:03pm


    This confuses, where and in what part of this or other country was this peculiar lack of concern for you? Was this in the uk, if so, why this awful practice, when abortions are regularly happening ?

    The debate is complicated.

    That is why no party and particularly not a liberal one, should have a policy beyond legal or legal.

    It is for politicians to debate and conscience to be exercised.

    The worst this party has done is have policies, once so David Alton left, now in Scotland, a mistake.

    I favour legal abortion but would reduce the weeks and keep the involvement of doctors, as well as bar abortion based on gender, and limit on disabilities that are minor.

    What Trudeau has done, like his father , is not liberal, mandates for politicians on these subjects are outrageously not open minded.

  • Elizabeth,

    Thankyou for sharing your story.

    May I point out that you could have requested an abortion after that first scan. I suspect the reason you were told to wait was so you could make am informed choice (i.e confirming that the foetus was not viable), and it wasn’t that you couldn’t exercise you choice then and there. (NB I will caveat that it is a de-facto right to request an abortion on demand in the UK excluding NI. However the law is a little more complicated, since legally speaking, there is no abortion on demand anywhere in the UK)

    If in Ireland (ROI and NI), sadly you would have needed to continue until miscarriage, which is of course ridiculous. Whatever the outcome of the abortion referendum in ROI, it is however possible that legal changes will enable abortion in cases of a foetus incompatible with life at some point in the near future.

    As for Savita Halappanavar. The current law in the ROI allows for abortion to save a mother’s life (presence or absence of a heartbeat is irrelevant), and an abortion would be indicated in her case. She didn’t receive an abortion because of clinical incompetence and mismanagement, rather than legal prohibition. Her death was down to negligence not the law, and I am always surprised her family haven’t taken full legal action against the hospital.

  • James, among all the other ways in which your comment is wrong, I feel it’s important to note that “the current law” in ROI is the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013. It was passed as the result of the tragic death of one Savita Halappanavar. You may have heard of her.

  • That’s a traumatic story for which you have all my sympathy. But when you look at mainland UK abortion law I’m not sure how much it applies.

    Yes terminating wanted babies will be more difficult – but it’s hard to see how that would be the case. I suspect most people in the situation you describe would opt for the ‘lets wait and hope even if it is a vain hope’ option that you took.

    But if not it’s hard to see how a scenario where someone was forced to continue to carry a child they believed to be dead wouldn’t cause “injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman” – the criteria for a legal abortion under the 67 act. In other words if the nurse said what is reported that isn’t a correct explanation of the situation.

    But using the phrase ‘wanted’ and ‘unwanted’ isn’t helpful. An unwanted baby isn’t grounds for a legal termination even in mainland UK. The 67 Act doesn’t create a ‘rights’ based approach to abortion, but rather a medicalised one which is based on the balance where the risk to the woman (physical or mental) from continuing with the pregnancy is greater than the risk of a termination.

  • Martin Walker 22nd May '18 - 8:26am

    Thoughts and prayers with you Lizzie. It was a hugely upsetting experience for me as a father, can’t really imagine what it is like for a mother. Take care.

  • @OnceALibDem

    You are right that legally speaking the 1967 Act doesnt allow abortion on demand. But it is de-facto abortion on demand based on how it is put into practice. Merely saying “I can’t cope with the idea of this pregnancy” is sufficient grounds to grant an abortion on the grounds of risk of injury to the mental health of the pregnant woman

  • Richard Underhill 22nd May '18 - 9:39am

    The debate in the Irish Republic is about an amendment to their constitution, for a repeal of Article 8. A NO vote leaves the current situation. A YES vote does not end the debate about abortion. An increasingly secular society implies that a YES vote is a realistic possibility. Carrying a dead baby to full term is only part of it.

  • The idea that the current law is de facto abortion on demand is completely factually incorrect.

    Elizabeth, thank you for such a heartfelt and personal piece.

  • @Jennie

    So are you saying there is abortion on demand on the mainland of the UK or not?

    Current law requires 2 doctors’ signatures and a clinical reason. So not on demand legally. In practice, up until 24 weeks, the pregnant woman will often see 1 doctor, rarely both, and sometimes neither, and the risk of injury to her mental health can be determined by her saying “I can’t deal with being pregnant/I’ve got other stressful things going on in my life/I won’t be able to cope”. So this is de-facto abortion on demand (up to 24 weeks/before the 3rd trimester). I’ve never heard of a pregnant woman being denied an abortion before the 3rd trimester (I am a doctor)

  • (even when abortion due to the gender of the foetus is the probable – but not stated – reason, she will still get an abotion. I suspect the few cases where an abortion before the 3rd trimester is not granted, is because gender motivated abortion is suspected with evidence to support the suspicion)

  • John Marriott 22nd May '18 - 8:43pm

    It was Jo Swindon versus Jacob Rees-Mogg on the Daily Politics today. I thought she gave a good account of herself. Rees-Mogg is implacable in his opposition to all abortion, which makes me think that, of all forms of Christianity, it is Catholicism that I have the most trouble with.

  • John Marriott 22nd May '18 - 8:44pm

    Predictive text again. That’s SWINSON, of course!

  • John – are you saying that Doctors are routinely carrying out abortions without following the provisions of the 1967 Act? If so aren’t you under a professional obligation to report this?

  • I’m sorry if this ruffles a few feathers but I see little problem with an ‘abortion on demand’ scenario….
    As I’ve said before I’m a volunteer in helping/feeding the homeless and rough sleepers. Many have experienced, as children, the affects being unwanted, dumped with ‘friends’ or taken into care; such tales can be harrowing. All are, or know, drug/alcohol addicts and suicides rarely raise an eyebrow.
    The affects of a, so called, ‘unwanted’ pregnancy can go on for years…

    As for which religion give the most problems…When Pope Francis tells a victim of clerical sexual abuse that, “God made him gay” and that his sexuality “does not matter.” that is a good sign.
    I have yet to hear a ‘Born Againer’, in any religion, accept anything outside biblical morality.

  • John Marriott 23rd May '18 - 9:57am

    “Doctors”? “Professional obligation”? Please explain because I am confused.

  • Thank you for sharing this Elizabeth.

  • “So are you saying there is abortion on demand on the mainland of the UK or not?”

    OK, obviously “this idea is completely factually incorrect” is not sufficiently clear for you, A Doctor, to understand.

    There is not abortion on demand.
    I know people who have been refused abortions.
    I know people who have been refused abortions on the suspicion that they are requesting one on gender grounds, presumably because of the colour of their skin or their name because there could be no other reason.
    Just because you, personally, have not seen a thing happen does not mean it doesn’t happen, and the world would be a lot better place if more people recognised that their experiences are not universal in all sorts of areas.

  • @Jennie

    Being refused an abortion before the 3rd trimester on the mainland is extremely extremely rare. I’ve never encountered anyone who has, and none of my Obtertrician & Gynecologist friends (who perform surgical abortions and/or work in clinics providing medical abortions) have ever declined an abortion before the 3rd trimester. This is why it is widely referred to as de-facto abortion on demand, and I would confidently say the situation absolutely is de-facto abortion on demand (before the 3rd trimester). Maybe we disagree as to the meaning of “de-facto”?

    And as I caveated, where it probably does happen (extremely rarely) is where it is being refused because of a preferred gender is suspected. Even then my friends who perform surgical abortions would still not refuse because the burden of proof to determine intent is near impossible. But the cases where it does get refused elsewhere is probably where it is requested after the 18 week scan (which reveals gender) and the pregnant woman has a history of such late 2nd trimester abortions with the foetus of a certain gender (invariably female). I suspect other cases where it might be refused is when it is felt the woman is being coerced into having an abortion (more commonly by a parent, but also possibly a spouse), in which case the abortion isn’t even genuinely demanded. Again extremely rare, but not non-existent.

  • @OnceALibDem

    Doctors pre-signing abortion approval forms has been widespread for a long time, and in spite of media and GMC coverage, undoubtedly still widely occurs. This is going to be in practice exclusively in medical (1st trimester) abortions in private providers (Marie Stopes and BPAS: which is where most abortions are provided), and certainly isn’t going to happen for surgical abortions or those in NHS facilities

  • Jim Alexander 27th May '18 - 6:50pm

    Whilst the change in Law in Ireland is welcome – I struggle to heap praise onto a Country that has just brought itself roughly in line Womens Rights that have existed in the UK for 40 years – it took a tragic death before Ireland,s Politicians took action – maybe less Congratulations and more Condemnation of the untold misery over the 40 Years – never mind the cost to the UK Taxpayer of the 3000 Women who travelled to the UK every Year to get basic rights – but as I say its Welcome – but certianly nothing to Congratulate Ireland on

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