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On abortion: floodgates, slippery slopes, and the thin end of the wedge

The scandalous ‘regulation’ of abortion carries crucial lessons for those seeking to permit euthanasia and assisted dying

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Sex-selective abortion: a controversy in focus
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Peter Smith
On 6 March 2012 10:28

Hats off to theDaily Telegraph for its brilliant exposure of how the abortion industry operates in the UK.

Posing as the sister of a pregnant girl, the paper’s reporter used a hidden camera to reveal, in dreadful detail, the ground truth in clinics and abortion centres.

On one occasion, in Birmingham’s Calthorpe Clinic, a nurse gives the mother a scan and asks why she is having a termination. “We found out the gender and found out it’s a girl and we don’t want a girl”, she replies. A doctor later tells her, “that’s not fair. It used to, yeah, it’s like the female infanticide, isn’t it?” and puts down ‘too young for pregnancy’ on the referral form instead.

On another occasion, a British Pregnancy Advisory Service counsellor told a mother, “if you want to tell me something different, another reason why you don’t want to continue with this pregnancy...I can put that”.

The most horrifying reaction was that of Prabha Sivaraman, a consultant in obstetrics and gynaecology in Manchester. When told that the reason for wanting an abortion was the gender of the foetus, she replied, “I don’t ask questions. If you want a termination, you want a termination.”

It is terrible that a child should be destroyed just because of their sex. It is not ever right to kill on this ground. Sex-selective abortion or ‘gendercide’ is a deeply, deeply disturbing phenomenon.

In China, the ‘one child’ policy has dramatically skewed the population composition: the ratio of girls:boys born has increased from 100:108.5 in 1982 to 100:118.9 in 2006. This represents the disappearance of millions of girls who otherwise would have been born. It is the tragic consequence of a government policy that was largely foreseen.

The gender imbalance has spilled over into Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan too, places where ultrasounds are also widely available and residual family culture favours boys over girls. The surplus of men is considered a threat to peace and stability and has generated a massive increase in kidnappings of women from other countries as there simply are not enough potential brides.

The main piece of legislation purporting to regulate abortion in England, Wales and Scotland is the Abortion Act 1967. This legislation – whose passing is commemorated in October each year - removed the near-total prohibition of what was known as ‘child destruction’, or the intentional killing of any child capable of being born alive, which was outlawed in most of the UK through the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 and provisions in the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.

The sole defence to this crime, whose maximum punishment was penal servitude for life, existed in acting ‘in good faith for the purpose only of preserving the life of the mother’.

The preamble to the1967 Act states that its purpose is to ‘amend and clarify the law relating to termination of pregnancy’. It allows abortion only when two doctors each ‘of the opinion, formed in good faith’ decide either that the continuation of the pregnancy would involve ‘greater risk’ to the mother’s health or her life than continuation of the pregnancy; or that termination is ‘necessary to prevent grave permanent injury’ to her health; or that there is a ‘substantial risk’ that the child would be seriously handicapped.

Only one doctor’s opinion is needed if termination is ‘immediately necessary’ to prevent grave injury to the mother, or save her life.

We see clearly how the 1967 Act operates today, and it is a very different picture from the ‘clarifications’ envisaged by its framers.

As medic Theodore Dalrymple notes, a pregnant woman needs only to state it will harm her mental health if she has her child and an abortion referral can be made - with no supporting evidence or further investigation needed. The ‘good faith’ requirement is only a requirement to take a woman’s claims at face value. The concept of ‘serious handicap’ has been twisted to mean that the slightest deformities such as webbed hands or feet, or a cleft palate, can be grounds for termination – even though these are easily corrected by surgical intervention.

Sloppy drafting in 1967 paved the way for future generations to slide open the lid of Pandora’s box, touch by touch, so that even the most spurious grounds (like the gender of the unborn child) can be cited as reason enough for termination.

This situation stands in sharp contrast to the promise David Steele made to Parliament when he introduced the abortion legislation: “it was not the intention of the promoters of the bill to leave a wide open door for abortion on request”. This, however, is precisely what exists now.

Without wishing to prejudice the police investigation into the Telegraph’s cases, to my mind it is pretty clear that it is very unrealistic to describe any of these medical professionals as acting in good faith. Andrew Lansley thinks so too. “These laws are absolute”, he rails. “They are not guidance which doctors can opt out of”. Yet the 1967 Act’s provisions have long been misused: it was only a matter of time before such complacency on the part of the abortion industry was revealed.

Abortion is a classic study of how an apparently “humane” act, through the carving-out of practical exemptions to a blanket rule, introduced by populist legislators with the intent of very rare use in the most extreme of circumstances, becomes grotesquely warped.

The loose language of the enabling law is the result of a legislative process that necessitates compromise and watering down of provisions. Once the law passes and the first procedures have taken place, subsequent ones become more acceptable as people seek to justify their actions; frequency and proximity mean that larger sections of society become familiar with the process too.

The end result is the creation of an industry – with all the accoutrements of campaign groups, government lobbying and public advertising –  whose vested interests point one way: to a culture where the weakest deliberation decides the fate of human life.

If the law on assisting suicide is ever relaxed, within a matter of years you will be reading very similar stories to the Telegraph’s.  Good intentions are not enough. The legal safeguards will never be sufficiently tight and will be both open to abuse and in fact abused. Professional discretion will be applied in ever-wider ways as patients demand more.

Our society must protect the most vulnerable, and this can only be done through the highest possible regulatory safeguards.

Peter Smith was formerly research assistant to Edward Leigh MP and now works as a lawyer in London

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