Revelations about law breaking by abortion clinics show this issue won't go away
Where do we stand as a society on the sanctity of human life? Controversies over recent weeks show we're far from consensus
Debating abortion is supposed to belong more on the American political landscape; public figures in Britain don’t usually like to touch the issue. The potential moral pitfalls are better left well enough alone. Yet the recent revelations about various malpractices at many of Britain’s abortion clinics have forced this issue back onto the agenda.
Just days ago it was revealed by the Daily Telegraph that as many as one in five UK abortion clinics could be breaking the law after investigators found cases of clinics stocking piles of pre-signed consent forms.
A few weeks prior to this came news of the even greater scandal that some clinics were falsifying consent forms so that abortions could be carried out on the basis of gender and this particularly struck a nerve in a society that is supposed to prize gender equality. We did not wish to see ourselves as being like India where up to a million baby girls are aborted a year, or China where in some areas the ratio is now 124 boys to every 100 girls.
As disturbing as it is that some parents would use abortion as a means of shopping around for the kind of baby they wanted we may need to ask ourselves whether this is really the most, and indeed only, troubling aspect of Britain’s abortion industry.
Regarding the practice of pre-signed consent forms, Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said that he was ‘appalled’ that abortion clinics were ignoring the law and parliament and were effectively stating ‘we believe in abortion on demand’. But aren’t we being rather dishonest with ourselves if we go on pretending that most cases of abortion in Britain today are about anything else.
The proposed reforms to abortion law backed by those such as Nadine Dorries, and currently being considered by the Department of Health, place the whole emphasis on providing women with independent and outside advice should they seek termination of pregnancy. Yet, if this is simply about ensuring that the mother’s decision is an informed one then can we really any longer say that this is still only about ensuring that ‘the termination is necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman’ as was originally stipulated by the 1967 Abortion Act.
The law would appear to be making a clear moral distinction that the wellbeing of the living mother takes precedence over the life of the unborn child, but it certainly does not say that the unborn have no rights in the face of a choice that might be based on considerations of little more than lifestyle or present convenience for the parents.
With the debate on abortion laws currently focusing on providing women with better advice, and the latest figures showing that in 2010 the number of abortions in England and Wales rose to 189,574 with nearly 3000 of those being women having their fourth abortion, surely there can be no denying the contraceptive element to abortion, despite the fact that the vast majority of these abortions will have been signed off by doctors on the grounds of the physical and mental health of the mother?
But if we are living in a society where abortion is simply a matter of choice then British law and society can no longer avoid the moral question of whether it believes the liberty of the living trumps the right to life of the soon to be born.
Indeed, there are other moral questions surrounding abortion that we as a society have been refusing to face up to. One particularly glaring discrepancy concerns those with disabilities, who in our society we acknowledge as equal worth and entitled to having equal rights to able bodied people. Yet, prior to birth the disabled are permitted no such innate right to life, for where as the law holds that abortion cannot usually take place beyond the 24th week of pregnancy, in a case where it can be judged that the child will be physically or mentally disabled abortion can take place to the full term of the pregnancy.
As a result a 2007 study found that more than one in every 30 abortions carried out for medical reasons was seeing the infant actually being born alive and generally surviving on for several hours following the abortion; a genuine horror few people have to witness or therefore acknowledge.
Much as is the case with euthanasia, it easy to sanitise abortion in our minds when we are not forced to confront the realities of what is actually happening in the course of the procedure. For anyone who watched the footage of the assisted suicide in the documentary made by Terry Pratchett for BBC Two last year, the mantra of the euthanasia lobby, ‘dignity in dying’, suddenly started to sound chillingly ironic.
However, the fact that euthanasia is now seating itself so squarely on the agenda of public discussion means that more colossal moral decisions are now rapidly heading the way of our law makers. Having negotiated on the value of human life at the point of its origin we now confront those who question its worth towards its end.
The society that embraced abortion and now no longer produces enough children to sustain natural population growth confronts the burden of an aging population ever more inclined to encounter mentally degenerative illness and finds that euthanasia is now looming large on the horizon.
As we have seen with the abortion issue in recent weeks, questions such as these will keep resurfacing on the public agenda and eventually we will be forced as a society to have a frank and mature revaluation of our position on the sanctity of human life and where we set the boundaries.
Tom Wilson is a political analyst and a doctoral student at University College London
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