As part of the Telegraph’s new ‘Wonder Women’ collective Cathy Newman has written a piece entitled ‘How the agony of my abortion made me see both sides’. In the article Newman shares her own experience of having ended a wanted pregnancy due to a diagnosis of severe fetal abnormality. She notes that she was lucky to find out about this abnormality relatively early, at 13 weeks, as many women would be having this scan at 20 weeks. She goes on to describe the difficulty of having to wait another week to access the procedure after having had this news:
‘Most women whose babies suffer from this condition wouldn't find out until the 20 week scan, if then. I was immediately offered an abortion, but quite apart from the emotional turmoil, it was extremely difficult to arrange. I was told I'd have to wait a fortnight, but eventually managed to fix the operation in a week - a week which seemed like a year as I dealt with the trauma of what was happening to me.’
We appreciate Newman sharing her personal experience, and acknowledging that there are complex situations and real people behind later term abortion, and that unavoidable delays can affect access and emotional wellbeing. However, there are a few points in the rest of the article we’d like to have seen more clarity on, this being such an important and emotive subject.
Firstly, the conclusions reached about later abortion are not entirely accurate. Newman claims that ‘if the law changes, women in similar situations might not have the choice I did’. The article’s ‘hook’ seems to be that Maria Miller, new Minister for Women and Equalities, voted in 2008 to reduce the abortion time limit to 20 weeks. In fact, if this part of the law changed it would presumably not affect somebody in a similar situation to Newman – that is somebody who had had a diagnosis of fetal abnormality, as this is a ground under which abortion can be accessed after the 24 week limit.
The more troubling statement which has been left unexplored, with no reference to scientific evidence, is that made by Miller herself regarding her reasons for supporting a reduced time limit. She claims to be:
‘driven by that very practical impact that late term abortion has on women...What we are trying to do here is not to put obstacles in people's way but to reflect the way medical science has moved on.’
There are two issues here. What is the ‘very practical impact’ that late term abortion has on women? Has this been measured against the ‘very practical impact’ which might arise from being forced to continue an unwanted or non-viable pregnancy to term? Secondly, Miller claims to be reflecting ‘the way medical science has moved on’. When Miller was voting on the 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act she would have heard that medical and scientific consensus remained in favour of maintaining a 24 week limit due to a lack of significant changes to viability before this point:
‘Having considered the evidence set out above, we reach the conclusion, shared by the RCOG and the BMA, 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.’
Miller’s insistence that it is ‘common sense’ which drives her desire to change the time limit should surely be questioned and backed up by relevant evidence. Rather Newman, (ironically Channel 4’s ‘factchecker’) allows this, as well as talk of ‘trauma’ to pass by, unexamined.
We know that only a tiny minority of women are accessing abortion after 20 weeks (1.5% in 2011) and as Newman acknowledges, this may be due to fetal health or delays to access (or an array of other issues, see this report from Marie Stopes for background on the reasons some women have later abortions). However, the article seems to support Newman’s own reasons for ending a pregnancy, but is shaky on the necessity of later abortion for ‘other women’. For example, women whose local hospital may not be 'one of the world's best in the field’. The quotes from Nadine Dorries in the piece are very telling – she claims that ‘prochoicers’ who support the current time limit are ‘ignoring the number of women who are traumatised and vulnerable during the abortion process’. Clearly, there are Wonder Women who can make logical, justifiable decisions about their pregnancy and there are Other Women who are vulnerable, whose choices need to be limited and who need to be ‘protected’ by politicians like Miller and Dorries.