Call to axe abortion law

January 21, 2005

Westminster is in for heated debate over controversial science. Anna Fazackerley reports

Academics from a variety of disciplines will gather in Westminister next week to argue that abortion should no longer be subject to any legal restrictions.

In an attempt to introduce a more rational academic debate on the controversial topic, social scientists, doctors and legal academics have decided to confront MPs and peers to try to counter recent emotional media coverage about abortion and the psychological development of the foetus.

The Pro Choice Forum, a group of UK academics who campaign to improve abortion rights, will meet MPs and peers from across the political spectrum in the House of Commons next Thursday to try to counter recent calls for late abortions - up to 24 weeks - to be outlawed. The group expects the meeting to attract a considerable gathering from the anti-abortion lobby.

Ellie Lee, a lecturer in social policy at Kent University and the founder of the group, told The Times Higher : "Abortion should be a decision between women and doctors. I don't think there should be a law about this, any more than there should be on any issue between doctors and their patients."

Dr Lee said that heated debate about late abortions ignored the fact that many doctors in the UK refused to perform abortions after 16 weeks.

She explained: "You might really struggle to get one - it all depends on where you live. Only two clinicians in London will take on abortions up to 22 weeks."

She said: "People who don't like abortion have used 4D ultrasound pictures to heat this debate up. But a lot of the discussion and the science has been very dodgy."

Sally Sheldon, professor of law at Keele University and a member of the PCF, said it was "probable" that the Abortion Act 1967, and specifically the issue of late abortion, would come up for debate in Parliament in the near future.

She described the current restrictions on women's right to choose abortions as "an anachronistic remnant of the attitudes of a previous age". She said:

"Having no law would be better than where we are now."

David Paintin, a retired gynaecologist who was performing abortions in the UK even before they became legal, is a keen supporter of the PCF.

He said: "I don't think anything that has been said in science in the past 20 years has altered my perspective. The foetus is as it has always been, and women's need for abortions is as it has always been."

The meeting will also discuss the viability of very early babies. Rodney Rivers, a reader in paediatrics at Imperial College London, will argue at next week's meeting that, based on current medical knowledge, it is acceptable for doctors not to attempt to save the life of a foetus born between 22 and 24 weeks of pregnancy.

He will tell the meeting that although survival rates for these premature infants have risen, as many as 67 per cent of those born at 23 weeks could suffer long-term disability.

But Patrick Cusworth, research director of the anti-abortion charity Life, said: "We've seen from the 4D ultrasound pictures by Professor Stuart Campbell that there is absolutely no doubt about the humanity of the child."

He said that there was "overwhelming sympathy" for a rethink of the law concerning late abortions even among people who supported abortion early in a pregnancy.

He added: "As for abandoning the law, it is important to note that it is there not merely to protect unborn children but also women themselves.

Abortion is not a safe or easy procedure."

anna.fazackerley@thes.co.uk

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