Abortion Lecture Notes
Transformations: Gender, Reproduction and Contemporary Society
Week 9: Whose Body Is It Anyway? The Politics of Abortion
Abortion Legislation in the UK
- Abortion is not an invention of the modern age.
- The 1861 Offences Against the Person Act in the UK makes abortion illegal
- The 1967 Abortion Act amends the 1861 and allows abortion under certain conditions and on certain grounds.
- The 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act further amends the 1967 Act.
Passage of the 1967 Abortion Act
Private Member’s Bill introduced to Parliament by the Liberal MP, David Steel.
1936: Abortion Law Reform Association formed
1938: Dr Aleck Bourne set a legal precedent by performing an abortion on a young woman aged 14 who had been raped, and openly inviting the police to prosecute him.
1939: government commission on abortion recommended the law on abortion be changed but any action was forestalled by WWII.
Post-war: relaxing abortion legislation on health grounds became more accepted.
Disadvantages of poor women recognised.
Thalidomide tragedy influenced public opinion in favour of abortion if the
foetus was seriously deformed.
1967 Act sought to reduce deaths and serious injury caused by illegal abortions, not to give women control over their reproduction.
Sarah Shelton: Anti-abortion lobbyists constructed women as immature of underdeveloped, sexually promiscuous and selfish.
Pro-abortion lobbyists constructed women as desperate victims.
Neither constructs women as responsible adults making reasoned decisions.
A woman cannot choose to have an abortion.
Not a simple rational or consumer choice.
The 1967 Act requires that two doctors certify that an abortion is appropriate. The conditions under which they can make that judgment are as follows:
- Risk to physical and mental health of the woman
- Risk to physical and mental health of the woman’s existing children
In both instances the time limit was reduced from 28 weeks to 24 weeks by the 1990 Act.
- Risk of grave physical and mental injury to the woman
- Risk to life of woman
- Foetal abnormality
There is no time limit set by legislation in the three instances above.
The law does not apply to Northern Ireland.
Before the Abortion Act some 10,000 women a year were having Harley Street abortions, many more backstreet abortions, with around 35,000 being treated annually after botched abortions.
By the mid 1960s unsafe abortion was the leading cause of avoidable maternal death ( http://www.bris.ac.uk/Depts/History/Sixties/Feminisms/abortion.htm).
The number of legal abortions and abortions as a % of live births has increased steadily since 1967. In 1968 23,641 women resident in England and Wales had an abortion, 2.7% of live births. In 1978 the figures were 141,558 and 15.8%. In 1988, 183, 798 and 19.5%. In 1998 187,402 and 21.9%.
In 2003 181,600 women resident in England and Wales had legal, medical abortions, a rate of 17.5 abortions per 1000 resident women aged 15-44. Women in the 20-24 age range had the highest rate, at 31.4 per 1000. 80% of abortions were funded by the NHS. 58% were carried out at under 10 weeks gestation, and 87% at under 13 weeks. 17% were on the grounds of grave risk to the woman’s health or life and 1% on the grounds of foetal abnormality (Summary Abortion Statistics, England and Wales: 2003, National Statistics Online).
Variations by Health Authority in the UK
There’s no guarantee of an abortion paid for by the NHS:
- medical professionals who disagree with the procedure need not be trained in or conduct abortions, or state their objection
- In 1999 in Solihull Health Authority the NHS funded only 46% of the abortions carried out, but 97% of those in Cumbria were NHS.
A survey of 1,000 GPs by Professor Colin Francome for Marie Stopes International in June 1999 showed that:
- 82% said they were pro-choice
- 60% said the law should be changed to provide women with abortion on request in the first three months of pregnancy
- 18% said they were anti-abortion but one in five of these said they still supported a women’s right to choose, despite their personal position
Although 85% said doctors with a conscientious objection should have to declare their views to their patients, 10% disagreed and 5% were both anti-abortion and not willing to declare their position.
Voice for Choice: out of 35,000 GPS in the UK, 1,700 may be actively working against the 1967 Abortion Act.
A further 7,000 GPs completed a more detailed questionnaire and West Midlands Region GPs emerged with the most consistent anti-abortion stance. They were:
- most in favour of restricting women’s access to abortion, allowing it only in exceptional circumstances
- least supportive of abortion in instances where women felt unable to cope financially or emotionally
- least supportive of NHS funded abortion, and more inclined to support the statement that if a woman had undergone one NHS procedure she should not be entitled to another
- least likely to refer women for an abortion
Abortion Legislation and Activism in the USA
Roe v Wade, 1973: US Supreme Court decided a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy came under the freedom of personal choice in family matters protected by the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution .
The ‘trimester’ system emerged:
- gives US women an absolute right to an abortion in the first three months of pregnancy
- allows some government regulation in the second trimester of pregnancy
- declares that states may restrict or ban abortions in the last trimester, when abortion can only be obtained if doctors certify it’s to save her life or health.
Roe v Wade was been contested since its inception.
Very difficult for poorer women in the USA to access abortions, because of the Hyde Amendment which limits the use of federal funding for abortions.
2003: banning of so-called ‘partial-birth abortions’. Generally used late in the second trimester of pregnancy for severe or fatal foetal abnormalities or where the pregnancy endangers the life or health of the pregnant woman.
Use of emotive language – abortion as murder, unborn foetuses as children – reduces complexity.
Contributes to construction of foetal personhood, which can be set against women’s rights.
April 2003: Unborn Victims of Violence Act.
‘The act was nominally prompted by the murder of pregnant Laci Peterson, but has implications for any woman judged to have endangered a foetus during pregnancy or birth’ (Guardian Supplement, 5 November 2004, pp. 6-7).
Large majority of US population support Roe v Wade.
April 2003 : more than a million women marched on the White House to defend their reproductive rights.
US abortion policy is restricting condom supplies in the majority world.
Effectiveness versus Risks of Rights Debates
As Smyth argues, a major problem with the ‘right to choose’ discourse is that it has facilitated effective and ‘successful lobbying for both the cultural and official recognition of foetal rights.
Pregnancies get constructed and imagined in adversarial terms between foetus and woman.
Paves way for discussions of ‘father’s rights’
But attempt to create equivalency between foetuses and women is contradictory:
- the foetus must be constructed as autonomous and independent
- the foetus must at the same time be represented as vulnerable to and dependent on women (who are variously constructed as murderous, feckless and libidinous)
Smyth argues three assertions led to the success of foetal rights’ advocates:
1. the foetus is morally equivalent to a rights-bearing person
2. the foetus is morally superior (because morally ‘innocent’) to an involuntarily pregnant, and implicitly sexually guilty, woman
3. the claim to a right to choice carries less moral weight than the claim to a right to life
Rather than engaging consistently with rights theory, foetal rights advocacy instead relies on an asserted equivalence between foetuses and rights bearing persons, not least through deploying an iconography that symbolizes that equivalence. The significance of birth in conferring rights is minimised.
Smyth: feminists should not give up on the language and political theory of rights but seek a more situated and embodied concept of the rights bearer.
The denial of the right to abortion should be understood as a serious symbolic assault on a woman’s sense of self precisely because it thwarts the projection of bodily integration and places the woman’s body in the hands and imaginings of others who would deny her coherence by separating her womb from her self (Cornell, 1995 p.38).
NRTs: Changing the Terms of the Abortion Debate
Foetal imagery contributes to the imagining of foetuses as free-floating, outside women’s bodies.
Yet the foetus cannot survive outside the woman’s body until at least 24 weeks.
The imaginary terrain created for the abortion debate constructs feminists and pro-choice activists as selfish baby-killers, and anti-abortion activists as advocates protecting the right to life of the unborn child.
New three-dimensional imaging technology pioneered by Prof Stuart Campbell recently purported to show a baby smiling in the womb:
Prof Campbell believes that the smiles could reflect inner contentment. “It’s remarkable that a newborn baby does not smile for about six weeks after birth, but before birth, most babies smile quite frequently,” he said (Daily Telegraph online)
This works to construct the foetus as a smiling and endearing child.
The pictures were immediately seized on by the pro-life lobby to support its anti-abortion campaign. Paul Danon, of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said the images showed that foetuses were “human beings whose right to life should be protected”.
The news story ends on a note of caution:
Dr Alan Cameron, consultant obstetrician and foetal medicine specialist at the Queen Mother’s Hospital in Glasgow, said: “It’s not clear whether what we are seeing in these pictures is a smile or just a facial movement.”
But given the headline – ‘The smile of an unborn baby’ - and the image of the foetus captioned ‘Inner contentment: a baby smiles in the womb’, this caution is rather late.
Feminists have argued that this peering through women’s bodies constructs women as foetal containers, or hostile environments, rather than thoughtful embodied adults who make difficult and constrained choices about reproduction in a whole host of different social, economic and health circumstances.
Research by paediatricians caring for premature infants born at less than 26 weeks clarifies that a foetus of this age is not capable of autonomous life, and that aspects of what make us human, such as brain capacity, is very under-developed at this stage.
Two thirds of infants born at less than 26 weeks die, and of those who live, two-thirds suffer irreversible disabilities.
Between 24 and 28 weeks is when brain waves akin to the adult pattern begin, and these only settle down after 32 weeks - the brain doesn’t fully mature until after puberty (Guardian supplement, 4 November 2004, p. 10).