Lara Prendergast Lara Prendergast

The abortion debate returns

I don’t like talking about abortion and so rarely do. I have never written about it before. I am uncomfortable doing so here.

It feels trite even to rehearse some of the debate. Can you simultaneously believe in a woman’s right to autonomy over her body and a baby’s right to life? Can you decide never to have an abortion, but also believe other women should be able to? Is an abortion at eight weeks different to an abortion at eight months? If pushed, I’d probably say that the answer to all of these questions is yes.

Labour’s Stella Creasy is campaigning to fully decriminalise abortion in England and Wales. ‘We can stop locking up women and instead lock in our human right to choose,’ she argued this week. MPs will soon be given the opportunity to vote on decriminalising abortion in England and Wales.

Considering why late-stage abortion seems wrong makes me wonder why it’s acceptable earlier in pregnancy 

Under the current law, abortion procedures are still technically illegal, but the 1967 Abortion Act created an exception if the abortion had been approved by two doctors ‘in good faith’ under certain conditions. Abortion was fully decriminalised in 2020 in Northern Ireland and now there’s pressure to do the same in England and Wales. The latest proposal seeks to modernise the law by decriminalising abortion up to 24 weeks. An amendment by Labour MP Diana Johnson would end prosecutions for women acting in relation to their own pregnancy at any gestation, ensuring that no woman would be liable for a prison sentence as a result of seeking to end her own pregnancy.

Do we want to be open to the prospect of babies being terminated at a late stage with no repercussions for the women who choose to do so? Such an amendment would force us to consider the issue of abortion once more. I suspect many of us would rather not talk about it for fear of falling out with friends or being thought of as taking a hard-line position. Who in their right mind brings up abortion at a dinner party?

Or for that matter, euthanasia? Matthew Parris was frank recently about why he believes in legalising euthanasia and in doing so re-ignited – to put it mildly – the debate on the matter. ‘We simply cannot afford extreme senescence or desperate infirmity for as many such individuals as our society is producing,’ he wrote. Matthew was at least honest about the fact that he thinks pressure on the terminally ill to end their lives is not necessarily a bad outcome for society. Many felt that his position was extreme and, in a way, the best argument against his own case.

I would say that the same is true of Creasy’s campaign. The more she argues for the law to be taken to what seems to a lot of people a worryingly extreme position, the more she reminds us of what it is to have an abortion: the termination of the life of a baby. That is a serious moral matter and a difficult ethical problem for any rational person or civilised society.

Where should the limit lie for being able to do such a thing? Nine months? Six months, as it currently stands in England and Wales? Around three, as is the case in France and Germany? There is a nine-month period when two lives are biologically inextricable – and at the moment in England, the mother has authority in six of those months. It is effectively a majority stake in her child’s life. If a woman cannot make up her mind in the time granted to her, that is her choice, but after that the minority rights of her baby kick in. She has chosen not to choose.

Would decriminalising late-stage abortion only ever be for extreme cases? For women like Carla Foster, who was jailed last year for illegally taking abortion tablets to end her late-stage pregnancy during lockdown and whose case sparked the calls for decriminalisation? These are indeed outlying cases and should be handled compassionately by the law. Do we need to change the law to accommodate the small number of women who decide not to use their right to choose in time? If so, what message does that send about how we value both a baby’s life and a woman’s ability to make a decision?

Let’s briefly slip down the slope to see where we land: why would these amendments not encourage more women to consider late-stage abortions? I can’t see how a decision to decriminalise all abortion doesn’t force a move in such a direction. It seems the next logical step. I’m resorting to the much-derided slippery slope argument. But Matthew Parris has been honest about how campaigns can indeed escalate, and this is often what is intended by those who back them.

Creasy’s hard-line position comes from a sense of certainty about what she believes. There are many, though, who prefer not to talk about abortion and are uncertain about what they feel. Opinions may fluctuate. By raising the stakes, Creasy raises questions. Considering why late-stage abortion seems so wrong makes me then wonder why it is deemed acceptable at earlier points in pregnancy. I’m not sure Stella Creasy is helping her cause.