Date: Mon, 27 Jan 97 09:18:03 CST
From: (Brian Hauk)
Subject: Abortion Debate Heats Up In Britain
Abortion Debate Heats Up In Britain

Abortion Debate Heats Up In Britain

By Celia Pugh, Militant, Vol.61 no.5, 3 February 1997

LONDON—Opponents of a woman's right to abortion opened the new year with a fanfare of media headlines about moral values and a bid to make abortion an issue for the spring general election. Cardinal Basil Hume, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, told the GMTV's Sunday program December 29, There are some things which are clearly good. There are some things that are clearly evil.... I am quite convinced that abortion is a great evil in our society.

Hume encouraged social action and political intervention to oppose abortion. The leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal Thomas Winning, echoed this appeal. In a BBC interview the same day, he accused the Labour Party of silencing antiabortion members of Parliament (MPs). In October, Winning denounced Labour Party leader Anthony Blair, who he said had washed his hands of abortion.

None of the main capitalist parties are prepared to make abortion an election issue. But a new party has been set up with that intent. The Pro-Life Alliance will stand around 50 candidates on an antiabortion ticket. This number will give them the right to an election broadcast, in which they plan to show a late-term abortion. The founder of the party, Bruno Quintavalle, is the 25-year-old son of Countess Quintavalle, a leader of the antiabortion group Life.

Mohamed Al Fayed, the multimillionaire chairman of Harrods department stores, has promised to back the Pro-Life Alliance candidates to the tune of 25,000 ($US41,500).

When the Pro-Life Alliance announced its plans in November, the London daily Independent reported that Janet Anderson, Labour spokeswoman on women's issues, declined to comment. Labour leader Blair said that he was personally hostile to abortion but that this should not be a party political issue.

John Reid, Labour MP for Motherwell North in Scotland and an opponent of abortion rights, said Winning is wrong. Reid asserted, Tony Blair has steadfastly protected the rights of MPs to vote ... according to their conscience.

Labour frontbench MP Clare Short declared that she favored a law regulating the availability of abortion, while leaving it to the individual to make her choice.

David Nolan of the Birth Control Trust told the Independent that the Pro-Life Alliance ultimately want[s] to see an end to all abortions.... The public does not see abortion as murder, so the pro-lifers want to make it seem more gruesome. They have lost the mainstream argument so they are resorting to shock tactics. They want to show footage of a late term abortion, and yes, that is gruesome, but so is any operation.

‘Keep abortion legal, safe'

The National Abortion Campaign is highlighting the slogan, Abortion: keep it legal, keep it safe in response to these probes. The 1967 Abortion Act made safe and legal abortion widely available, with free provision through the National Health Service (NHS). Before then a doctor and woman were liable to life imprisonment for abortion except for the most extreme cases where pregnancy threatened the woman's life. Before 1967, tens of thousands of women turned to the backstreets each year for dangerous, illegal abortions.

In 1965, hospital records indicate 3,050 women were treated for post-abortion poisoning. Between 1961 and 1963, some 160 women were recorded as dying as a result of abortion. That number fell to four in the years 1985 to 1987.

The 1967 law was a historic breakthrough for women. It says a woman can obtain a legal abortion if pregnancy poses a risk to her life and in cases of fetal abnormality. Abortion is also legal if a woman's physical or mental health, or that of her children, are put at greater risk by continued pregnancy. An article in the January 4 Economist noted that formally the law states that two doctors must certify compliance. It states that free NHS provision and delays vary across the country. However the Ecomomist observes, Informally it [the law] is interpreted liberally so that most pregnant women who are adamant that they do not want a child can get safe, legal terminations.

The 1967 Act does not apply to northern Ireland. Thousands of Irish women from the north and south travel to Britain each year for private, often delayed abortions. In 1994, at least 7,000 Irish women traveled to Britain for the procedure. Changes to the 1967 Abortion Act were introduced in Parliament in 1990. Time limits were lowered from 28 weeks to 24 for most cases. Time restrictions, however, were completely withdrawn for late abortions in cases of risk to life, fetal abnormality, or risk of grave physical and mental injury to the woman. In 1993, 89 percent of abortions in England and Wales were performed at 13 weeks or less. An estimated one in three women of child bearing age has had an abortion.

A national opinion poll in October 1996 showed 81 percent support for a women's right to choose. Last August another poll recorded that only 37 percent of Catholics supported tighter abortion laws, despite the position of the church hierarchy.

Protests defend abortion rights

Since 1967, members of Parliament have introduced bills five times attempting to restrict the abortion law. Each was met by street protests and failed. The biggest demonstration, in October 1979, was supported by the Trades Union Congress and drew 80,000 people.

The gains of the 1967 act have not been reversed, and the main political parties are unwilling to launch a frontal attack on abortion rights. But the high profile abortion debate and a battle between the Conservative and Labour parties for the banner of family values are part of an ideological campaign against women's rights.

Prime Minister John Major made a new year pledge to put home life and family values at the top of his campaign in the 1997 elections, which must be called by May. Major declared at the core is my strong belief in the family and our national institutions as the foundations of a free, caring and decent democratic society.

In recent months sensational headlines blamed a breakdown of parental responsibility for crime and other social problems. The Evening Standard October 28 ran an article titled, So, do working mothers damage their children? It reported a study by the Institute of Economic Affairs which claimed that preschool child care damages children and causes bad behavior.

Other articles try to extend this caring parenting to the womb, with reports claiming pioneering research proving fetal pain, complete with multicolor pictures of developed fetuses.

Discussion in the media has also focused on calls for freely available abortion up to 12 weeks, but tighter restrictions after that.

Tory MP Elizabeth Peacock recently introduced a bill to outlaw partial birth abortion, though the procedure is rarely, if ever, used in this country. The bill stands no chance of passing, as time will run out before the election. Last summer, the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) obtained a court injunction to delay a woman receiving a selective abortion of one of two twin fetuses. This was moot, as the woman had already had the abortion. Both it and the Peacock bill mark legal probes to restrict women's rights to abortion, however.

The National Abortion Campaign has called a picket for 12 noon, February 1, outside the Harrods store in London's Knightsbridge district to publicly challenge the Pro-Life Alliance and defend a women's right to choose.