Abortion in the UK
Abortions are not:
- The failure to fully conceive (cell division)
- The embryo that forms and then fails
- The foetus that fails to develop, dies and is ejected (perhaps with assistance)
- A still born baby: it dies and a "birth" must still take place
Miscarriage is deemed as natural, and not abortion; however in history women fearing pregnancy have used herbs to cause miscarriage, or to generate menstruation.
People often forget that many conceptions are unnoticed or late or missed periods. The body often does not support a conception (one in six fertilisations end in miscarriage).
- The removal of dependent life with its own genome before it has had chance to come to birth.
After some four weeks since the last normal menstrual period an embryo is acquiring the basics of recognisable features.
For some, abortion is the removal of dependent life which may never achieve selfhood anyway, that has no or limited consciousness, and is at best potential selfhood with only gathering consciousness and environmental awareness; for others, abortion is life, and it is always wrong to kill whether a bunch of cells or a foetus that acquires increasing consciousness and ability to suffer pain.
Abortion has been used in some countries and some individuals as an alternative to contraception; the morning after pill makes abortion into contraception at the earliest stage of possible pregnancy (it may be preventing a non-pregnancy). In more recent times there is the research that will allow the growth of human tissue to repair diseases and this requires very early stage growth of human fertilised or cloned cells.
- Medical abortion:
- mifepristone (the abortion pill or RU-486)
- Absences progesterone so that the lining of the uterus breaks down with bleeding)
- Prevents implantation several weeks on) both with misoprostol, to induce an abortion
- Medical abortions can be performed as early as a pregnancy can be confirmed
- Surgical abortion:
- Emptying the uterus (or womb) with special instruments.
- Before 1803:
- Abortion was allowed
- So long as it was before the "quickening", when the soul entered the body at about 20 to 24 weeks
- There were no fixed penalties for breaking the law.
- Abortion was illegal from conception
- 1861 Offences Against the Person Act Section 58:
- Abortion illegal with 3 years to life imprisonment.
- 1929 Initial Life Preservation Act:
- Abortion not illegal if
- In the opinion of doctors, it preserved the life of the mother
- But illegal to abort a viable foretus (that could be born)
- 28 weeks is viability however
- Not applicable in Scotland
- 1938 case:
- An abortion by Dr Alex Bourne
- After 14 year old raped by several soldiers
- Doctor gave himself up to police
- The judge said he acted in the honest belief that this abortion would preserve the life of the mother
- This was exceptional.
The contemporary law on abortion comes fundamentally from 1967, and it has a practical approach. An aim was to end "back street" and "DIY" abortions. It was adapted in 1990 (see below).
- 1967 Abortion Act:
- Two doctors must be satisfied that an abortion is necessary in order to:
- Protect the health of a pregnant woman or
Protect the health of her existing family or
Prevent the birth of a child who would be severely handicapped.
- Abortion must be carried out by:
- A certified medical practioner
- Department of Health Approved location like a British Pregnancy Advisory Service clinic.
In practice the act operates that once the two doctors agree according to conditions then the preganancy can be terminated. This has been challenged from time to time, when it is considered that doctors have accepted termination for a trivial reason.
Psychological health reasons for termination can include:
- Immaturity before 17 years old
- Low intelligence:
- Lack of foresight in becoming pregnant and raising a child
- High intelligence:
- Catastrophic to a woman's career, if older and responsible position at work
- Standing in the community:
- Where a birth would wreck the position of a woman, for example:
- An unmarried teacher
- A Roman Catholic
- Bad history of pregnancies:
- Women with a history of difficult preganancies
- Women with a history of difficult births can be included
- If the woman is distressed at interview requesting an abortion
- Reaction to pregnancy:
- Depression or illness resulting from preganancy
- Conception situation:
- Failure of contraception
- Ignorance of contraception
- If the man is mad (his psychology!):
- Particularly if a brief sexual liaison
- If a birth would add to family distress because he has psychosis
- Single women left alone
- Married women abandoned
- If a divorce is forthcoming
- Extra marital affair:
- If the marriage would be affected
- Lacking basic needs:
- No or poor shelter
- Little food
- Inadequate clothes
- Little money:
- Mental vulnerability:
- Own mental health history
- Her family history (eg relatives in mental institutions)
It is important to realise that these are arguments are about the impact that would result on the woman's pyschological state. They raise the likelihood of abortion: doctors can make a judgment.
Psychological reasons against termination include:
- Not using contraception and knowing the consequences
- Can the woman adapt to the change to having a child?
- Patient's true wishes:
- Many a woman seeks abortion but has private desires in favour of the birth
- Other people are not allowed to pressure her into abortion.
What we see nevertheless is that psychological ill health is seen as resulting from poor social conditions: therefore social conditions do play a part! The act was therefore flexible: not quite abortion on demand but distress if denied abotion meaning not far from it.
A second consequence is the woman being regarded as a psychological problem: this has a long history, when men were regarded as rational and stable and women as emotional and unstable. Instead of tackling social conditions directly, putting them into psychology continues this labelling of women. This image is enhanced if it is two male doctors making the final decision.
In Northern Ireland, as in the Republic of Ireland, abortion is only allowed with an immediate danger to the life of the woman and emergent baby. This means that many women in the north and south of Ireland come to Britain to have an abortion. Britain remains stricter than many other countries in the European Union, where Roman Catholicism is not historically important regarding the state or where secularism has superseded Catholicism (eg France).
Adaptations have been made to the Abortion Act of 1967. This joins abortion into areas including human cell research as well as (traditionally with) contraception.
- 1990 Human Fertilisation and Emryology Act (Section 37):
- Normally there is a time limit of 24 weeks for abortions
- But there is No time limit if:
- A greater risk to the life of the woman if the pregnancy continues
- With immediate need to abort to prevent permanent:
- Physical and mental injury
- Serious physical or mental handicap to the child
Hordern, A. (1971), Legal Abortion: The English Experience, Oxford: Pergamon Press.
Donellan, C. (ed.) (1997), The Abortion Debate, Issues for the Nineties, Vol. 34, Cambridge: Independence.
Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful