Cameron ignores medical evidence on abortion

David Cameron's remarks about abortion today have re-ignited the ‘time-limit debate’ as an electoral issue. The anti-choice ball is rolling early in the campaign.

Our guest writer is Darinka Aleksic, Campaign Co-ordinator at Abortion Rights

David Cameron today lit the blue touch paper and re-ignited the ‘time-limit debate’ as an electoral issue. When the last serious attempts to reduce the current 24 week abortion time limit were comprehensively defeated in Parliament in 2008, pro-choice supporters fervently hoped that the subject had been decisively settled.

But the small group of anti-choice MPs who masterminded the 2008 attack have always promised to reopen the issue after a general election – if they have enough Parliamentary support. And today’s comments by David Cameron look as if he is keen set the anti-choice ball rolling early in the campaign. But while he cites developments in “medical science and technology” to support his view that a cut to 20 or 22 weeks would be “sensible”, his comments entirely disregard the scientific evidence.

Foetal viability was rigorously examined by the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology in 2007. The Committee concluded, in a view shared by the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, that:

“While survival rates at 24 weeks and over have improved they have not done so below that gestational point. Put another way, we have seen no good evidence to suggest that foetal viability has improved significantly since the abortion time limit was last set, and seen some good evidence to suggest that it has not.”

Mr Cameron’s view is based on neither sense nor science. His comments highlight the problematic manner in which the abortion debate is increasingly conducted – where emotion and opinion frequently trump not only medical evidence but the reality of women’s experiences of unplanned pregnancy and abortion.

The vast majority of abortions in the UK are carried out before 13 weeks of pregnancy (90% in 2008) and 73% take place below 10 weeks. Only 1.5% of the total are carried out later than 20 weeks. Later abortion is disproportionately likely to involve teenage or vulnerable women. Typically it is requested after delayed recognition of pregnancy, after family or relationship breakdown or the onset of domestic violence. Fear of parents’ or partners’ reactions or the trauma of sexual assault or rape sometimes result in the ‘denial’ of pregnancy. Sometimes a woman simply does not know where to ask for help, her referral is delayed or she receives a late diagnosis of a serious foetal abnormality. In all these circumstances, the right to access an abortion is critical for a woman’s health and well-being.

Comments reported in the Telegraph, suggesting that Mr Cameron’s focus on abortion indicates the growing use by Conservatives of US-style campaigning, in which ‘culture wars’ issues dominate a highly polarised electoral agenda, are cause for alarm. The pro-choice camp in the UK includes MPs of all parties, and the campaign against the 2008 time limit reduction attracted a broad coalition of political and popular support. The vast majority of the British public support a woman’s right to choose, and will not appreciate Mr Cameron’s attempt to exploit this serious personal health issue for political gain in the run up to the general election.

As Fawcett Chief Executive Ceri Goddard today remarked:

“This debate is not purely a matter of conscience; it is about basic human rights. Whilst we recognise that all the parties have different views on how to best protect and progress women’s equality, there are clear links between women’s reproductive rights and our broader equality and any new policies should build on existing rights, not erode them.”

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