Thu Mar 20th, 2008 at 09:43:18 PM EST
The continuing passage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill has been exploited by pro-life MPs to reignite the debate surrounding the UK's current abortion laws. Despite the bill being only tangentially concerned with abortion, there is a general belief that an amendment to the bill will be introduced to reduce the legal time limit from 24 to 20 weeks.
(There has already been a defeated amendment which sought to restrict the acceptable grounds for late termination, but the amendment was not expected to be successful and isn't particularly pertinent to the future.)
There is a great deal that could be said regarding this possible change in the law, especially around the fact that the science behind the debate to lower the time limit is a little shaky. Regardless, this focus on the time limit is just an obsession borne of the political realities. The ProLife Alliance would like to see an end to all abortion, but winning a restriction on the time limit is an easier victory, and turns the entire debate in their favour. They quite rightly discount the arguments of pro-choice campaigners using the example of rape as an essential need for abortion, but this is no different. Both are marginal cases intended to serve as a just point of principle (a reduction to the extremes) and are unworthy as a bases on which to formulate law. The majority of abortions are neither in the second trimester, nor through the necessity of rape.
The reason for bringing this up now is the appearance of yet another salvo in what is the long build-up by pro-life campaigners for the introduction of the amendment itself. It was reported, in both The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mail, the 'shocking' figures about repeat abortions, which were given in answer to a question by Mark Pritchard MP. The figures aren't important, whatever they may be, rather the way they have been played here matters.
The initial problem I have with the reporting is that in both cases the story gives the impression that these figures are newly released. This is spurious, as the figures come from 2006, and the Department of Health website clearly shows they have been in the public arena since 19 June 2007. The intention is to create, or rather reaffirm, the belief that the state is withholding information from the debate, and only through persistent questioning will the truth be discovered.
The Telegraph goes further in creating essential images for the debate, by focussing solely on the use of abortion services by teenagers. The singling out of this group of people, whom they refer to as 'girls', is to reinforce the idea that the need for abortion stems from the irresponsibility of the woman. 'Teenagers' are not a true group within this debate, in the sense that the label contains a vast range of experiences of fertility and sexuality, from the pre-menarcheal female, to the mother of multiple children. But the readily constructed ideal of such evils as adolescent sexuality, social naivete, moral irresponsibility, and, worst of all, uneducated single mothers, presents too great a temptation to resist. 'Teenager' becomes the proximal association to abortion, desirably spreading its contagious connotations.
It could be countered that 92% of all under-18s who seek an abortion have never had one before; they are abortion 'virgins', if you will forgive the pun. Or that more and better sex education and contraceptives are essential to creating a generation of women which is both interested and empowered concerning its own fertility. But I doubt such proposals would be welcomed, and I don't really want to offer them.
The truth is, the number of abortions is unimportant, along with time limits and the acceptable criteria, as they only really seek to the 'how' and not the 'why'. Even the Family Planning Association doesn't answer this question properly, and only manages to give secondary reasons. The primary reason is simple: it's my fertility, and you can't frame that in reference to the state, religion, teenage mothers, or anything external to the individual, not even the 'sacredness of life'. The only term of reference is me, and I look forward to the day 646 MPs debate that.