At times this was a hard debate to watch, simply because it dealt with issues about which you can’t be unemotional. It was also conducted at a pretty high intensity. Kate Smurthwaite began her opening speech by inviting the men in the audience to leave the room; she then extended the invitation to practically everyone else who supported the motion, ‘This House Regrets the 1967 Abortion Act’. The audience decided to stay in their seats, and heard a debate which soon went beyond the immediate topic into larger matters of principle. Here are eight key points which the debate covered.
Caroline Farrow, Nathan Pinkoski (Moderator), Kate Smurthwaite
1. What is abortion?
Caroline Farrow began with the fundamental question. She defined abortion as the ‘deliberate ending of the life of an unborn human being’. BPAS Chief Executive Ann Furedi, she pointed out, doesn’t deny that the unborn is human, alive and a unique being; the feminist author Naomi Wolf has called on her fellow pro-choicers to acknowledge that abortion involves a ‘real death’. The Abortion Act, then, legalised the deliberate taking of life.
Kate offered no alternative definition of abortion, though she said that she thought definitions of life were ‘spurious’. She supports abortion until birth, she explained; asked about babies who survive abortion and are born alive, she said they should be kept alive and put up for adoption. Viability, meanwhile, was ‘a red herring’: if it proved possible to keep the unborn alive at two weeks, abortion should still be legal up to birth.
2. What role should the law play?
Kate told us to be realistic about the reach of the law: ‘If a woman doesn’t want to continue with a pregnancy, she will not.’ Were abortion illegal, it would still go on, but illicitly and dangerously. She added that this would hit the poorest sections of society the hardest, and reminded us that as Oxford graduates (she is one herself) we have a responsibility to them. ‘We should be a part of improving their options, not ripping away what they have left.’
Caroline accepted that abortion will always happen. But ‘if terminating a pregnancy is taking a human life, we should send a signal that this is not OK.’ We don’t decriminalise murder and domestic violence and try to provide ‘a safe environment’ for them; we use the law to discourage them.
3. Should we have abortion on demand?
Caroline went back to the 1967 Commons debate. David Steel, who put forward the Bill and guided it through parliament, said: ‘We want to stamp out the back-street abortions, but it is not the intention of the promoters of the Bill to leave a wide open door for abortion on request.’ But today we do have something like ‘abortion on request’: 98% of Britain’s nearly 200,000 annual abortions are carried out under ‘clause C’, the so-called ‘social clause’ which permits abortion to protect the mother’s mental health.
Caroline quoted a 2011 review carried out by the National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health, which concluded: ‘Abortion does not improve mental health outcomes for women with unplanned pregnancies’. Yet it is for such ‘mental health outcomes’ that 98% of abortions take place.
In the 1967 debate, Jill Knight MP warned about ‘abortion on demand, which, of course, is what subsection (1, c) actually means.’ The suggestion was greeted with ‘uproar’ in the House of Commons. But Knight had been proved correct, Caroline suggested: over a third of abortions are repeat abortions, and some women have 5 or 6. Kate said of such cases, ‘I agree that that’s a problem’. But women having repeat abortions tend to be those trapped in economic deprivation or abusive relationships. We should be helping their situation.
In the Q and A, an audience member pointed out that current UK law discriminates against those with disabilities. They can be aborted up until birth, whereas the able-bodied can only be aborted up to 24 weeks. Kate agreed that this was a glaring fault – which ‘should be solved by completely decriminalising abortion’.
Kate Smurthwaite speaking
4. What are the effects of abortion?
Caroline drew attention to the many women who suffer psychological pain, but ‘are told to shut up about their regret because it ruins the narrative.’ She included herself in this: when she had had an abortion, she felt that she had struck a blow for women’s rights; but she still suffers to this day.
Kate replied: ‘She was free to make that choice, and so should you be’. She added that she herself had had an abortion; it was in Japan, where attitudes are more relaxed and there is less guilt. Negative feelings are created by pro-life groups, religious leaders and so on. If you want to solve psychological problems, you should ‘scrap faith schools’, get rid of the requirement for doctors to approve abortion requests, and make the system easier.
5. Is legal abortion safer for mothers?
Before the 1967 Act, Caroline said, the annual rate of maternal death from unsafe abortion was 30. That was 30 too many deaths, but some perspective is needed when one considers the 6 million unborn who have died since then: roughly a tenth of the UK population, in other words, is missing. And does the evidence bear out that legal abortion is safer?
Medical care has improved, Caroline went on. Less than 150 of the 6.4 million abortions performed between 1968 and 2011 were performed to save the life of a woman. One major symposium of nearly 150 medical experts in obstetrics took place in Dublin in 2012, and concluded that abortion is never medically necessary to save the life of a mother.
Moreover, countries with the most liberal abortion laws, such as the US, Canada and Norway, have the highest maternal death rates. The International Planned Parenthood Foundation has acknowledged a surge in maternal mortality rates in South Africa, even though that country has had the some of the most permissive laws in Africa. Mauritius, with some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Africa, has the lowest maternal mortality rate. In South America, a similar effect can be observed: Chile, whose constitution protects the lives of the unborn, has maternal mortality rates 30 times lower than Guyana, where abortion has been unrestricted since 1995.
Kate replied that statistics show legal abortion is far safer for women. She said she didn’t have any figures to hand, but had a graph about Guyana which she could post on her website. She reminded us of the deaths of women denied abortions: ‘I’m here on behalf of all those women.’ One was Savita Halappanavar, whose husband she had met. Savita, Kate claimed, ‘knew that an abortion would save her life’.
Caroline responded that Savita’s tragic death happened because of ‘mismanagement of sepsis. A termination would not have helped her.’
6. Is it a free choice?
Kate appealed to autonomy: ‘It might be your moral choice not to use it…but it is my right to act as I see fit.’
Caroline replied that not every woman is in a clear frame of mind when she chooses abortion: many feel they are ‘bounced’. The decision is not taken in a vacuum, free of external pressures of all kinds. The Good Counsel Network have many stories illustrating this: for instance, one woman who said, ‘I don’t want to have this abortion, but my boyfriend is outside in the car and I don’t know what to do.’ Caroline returned to her own experience: ‘The choice that I thought I was exercising…was not free.’ And later in life, she was pressurized to abort her daughter:
‘I was under pressure from family, friends and even work pressures…it was made clear to me that I had in some way let down the company and had severely dented my future prospects, despite the existence of copious employment legislation designed to protect women.’
A midwife had been so insistent that she have an abortion that Caroline had stopped seeing her, and so had ended up with health problems.
Kate rejoined that she was ‘against forced abortion as much as forced pregnancy’.
The hall fills up before the debate
7. Is the pro-life movement made up of religious bigots?
Kate explained that she couldn’t shake hands with any OSFL members: ‘It’s not my policy to shake hands with people who want to take away my human rights.’ Most pro-lifers, she claimed, believe in God; so she asked Caroline whether anyone would go to heaven for not being able to have an abortion. Anyway, if you believe in God, shouldn’t you expect Him to step in and stop abortion?
Caroline replied that ‘There is a thriving secular pro-life movement’. Though she herself is Catholic, it’s not a purely religious dogma to want ‘egalitarian rights across the board’ for everyone, including the unborn. As far as she was concerned, it is ‘deeply unchristian to judge’. She recommended that if Kate was ever condemned by Christians, ‘You can say, ‘I know a rabid fundamentalist Catholic who says you shouldn’t judge people’.’
8. What does it mean to value women?
For Kate, ‘pro-life’ is a misnomer: it should be ‘pro-forced pregnancy’. Unless you are a vegan who avoids stepping on ants, or have donated a kidney, your pro-life principles are a sham: you must think that ‘forced pregnancy is the right way to punish women for having sex.’ Behind the rhetoric of valuing life is a hatred for women.
Caroline saw it differently. For one thing, ‘Abortion profoundly hurts women, physically, mentally, socially and culturally.’ For another, ‘Abortion says to women, ‘No, you can’t cope.’ It’s a vote for despair.’ It must be possible to love the baby and the mother. The true progressive doesn’t treat motherhood as a problem.
The two speakers agreed that more support is needed, for pregnant women, for parents, and for children with disabilities.