The Socialist 3 May 2007 |
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Abortion rights under threat
Women must have the right to choose!
It has been revealed by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists that a woman's right to choose to terminate a pregnancy is under threat, due to a lack of medical staff willing to be involved in the procedure. With a record 190,000 women opting for abortion in the last year and an average increase of around 3,000 per year in the last few years, this development presents serious issues for women and their families.
The reasons for the growing number of doctors who either refuse to do this procedure or partake in the training required are varied.
Since the 1990s, there has been a conscientious objection clause which allows trainee doctors to opt out of training in abortion procedures, where previously only religious objections were valid. Anti-abortion campaigners are using the new four-dimensional scanning procedures which allow ever clearer, earlier views of a foetus in the womb to increase the pressure on doctors not to perform abortions (which are currently allowed up to 24 weeks gestation). Alongside this issue is that of the cuts in working hours of junior doctors.
The new restrictions make it impossible to train in all areas of care. Abortion is not a glamorous or high profile procedure, it is not something a woman chooses to do gladly and even in the UK it is a part of the profession that can draw abuse and derision from some quarters.
As such it is not high on the list of priorities for most trainees and this leaves us with fewer doctors than ever willing or trained to carry out abortions in the face of ever growing demand.
While the 1967 abortion act gave women the right to a termination and subsequent years of campaigning increased public acceptance of abortion, it is not as freely available as is portrayed by some 'pro-life' groups. A woman seeking a termination must have a demonstrable reason which falls into one of seven legally defined categories and explain it to two doctors who both need to approve the abortion.
While these procedures are partly in place to protect the mental and physical health of women and can be useful and well intentioned, they do slow down the process and make it daunting for many women. In what seems to be an increasingly 'pro-life' climate, many women are finding it difficult to get their request for abortion granted before the 12-14 week mark.
After this point the procedures carry more risk and are often less morally acceptable to the women themselves and those who will still refer for, or perform abortions.
Single parents and young parents are often unjustifiably blamed by parliamentary politicians for society's woes, yet these same politicians are not providing enough doctors and facilities for women to end unwanted pregnancies. This looming crisis needs to be resolved.
It seems the government is once again turning to privatisation as a cure. Some 40% of NHS abortions were carried out in the private sector in the last year, up from 20% in 1995, with the NHS picking up the cost. This is not a useful solution however. It increases the cost to the NHS which could increase the pressure to limit abortions. Also, using the private sector gives the impression that the NHS does not need to invest in providing women with abortion services, as the private sector can take up the slack.
This does not bode well for the future of abortion access in Britain. It gives the impression that abortion is a fringe service, and belies its importance in allowing women the freedom to choose what they do with their bodies.
The 1967 abortion act was hard won, and this must not be forgotten. Whilst the battle still rages furiously in the US, in the UK there is far less outspoken polar opinion, but change is creeping in gradually.
Is it acceptable for doctors to pick and choose which services to offer women on the basis of their own personal or religious views? While I don't believe anyone should be forced to perform abortions, I ask myself how someone who dedicates their life to helping people can refuse to provide women with an admittedly unpleasant, but necessary service.
Personal views may be that abortion is not a woman's right, cite the 'right' of the foetus, religious teachings, or even berate women for falling pregnant in the first place if they then decide to terminate the pregnancy, but nonetheless, unplanned pregnancies happen and it is clear in a society where there is one abortion for every three live births that women need access to terminations.
Abortion has an immense impact on women's lives. For the vast majority it is a difficult and painful decision, but most who take it, do so in order to protect their health, their families and their futures.
Limited access to abortion threatens not only our freedom to control our bodies and health, but our status in a society that does not place much value on motherhood and often blames parents for the problems that grow from poverty. Women must have the right to decide, and the means to safely act on that decision.