Draft motion on abortion rights from AWL EC 30/09/05; counter-motion from Kate A; discussion contribution from Cathy N; response from Kate A.; response from Cathy N.
The AWL National Committee will have a discussion on abortion rights at its meeting on 05/11/05.
AWL and its forerunners have published many articles on abortion rights, and participated strongly in many big campaigns on the issue.
We've never had a formal policy motion before. There was a small debate in our predecessor organisation Workers' Fight in late 1973 - triggered by a few comrades who were doubtful about abortion rights - but for the most part there has been no question about our attitude on the substantive question of abortion rights, only about tactics for various campaigns.
The current motion (and what may at first seem the odd balance of it) comes out of a debate has developed informally among AWL members, especially students, in recent months. We want to put the debate on a proper formal basis; and anyway it will be good to re-clarify our ideas in order to relate to the probability of a sizeable campaign against attempts coming soon to roll back abortion rights.
What's been in dispute in the recent informal debates is whether we should support the right to abortion "up to term", or whether we recognise the validity in principle of some time limit. As far as I can trace, the only text where we've specifically addressed that question in the past was an article by Fran Brodie in Workers' Fight 24 (March 1973) which said: "An embryo in the period within which it is safe to carry out an abortion is not a developed human form and cannot be said to have consciousness in anything like the same way human beings do". That formulation was reprinted in article by Susan Carlyle in a pamphlet we published in 1977, "The Fight for Women's Rights". (MT)
Draft motion from EC
1. In general, we are for the right to abortion as an expression of women's rights to control over their own bodies. Against that consideration, the hypothetical rights of an embryo or an undeveloped fetus - which may potentially become a human being but is far from one yet - are of less weight. The universal experience is that where abortion is made illegal, it still happens, but in dangerous and distressing conditions. It should happen with proper medical care and attention.
2. All our policies on abortion operate within a framework of fighting for women's equality and liberation, better social provision for children and parents, better sexual education and availability of contraception, economic equality and an end to poverty, etc. The measure of a good abortion law is not a large number of abortions, but a low or zero number of illegal abortions, and a low or zero number of late abortions. Even today, the Netherlands, thanks to social provision, combines perhaps the world's most liberal abortion law with one of the lowest abortion rates in Europe, a rate very much lower than the rates in Latin America where abortion is almost completely illegal. Worldwide, 41% of the estimated 46 million abortions every year are illegal. About 80,000 women die each year from unsafe abortions.
3. Absolutist formulas like "abortion on request up to term", however, make no sense. New considerations are raised in the rare (or, even, hypothetical) case of abortion at a very, very late stage where:
a) the fetus may be more advanced in brain and emotional development than some new-born babies; and
b) the fetus could as easily or more easily be delivered alive, and survive independently, as be aborted; and
c) abortion is not a matter of personal autonomy - of social assistance with a procedure which a woman could in principle (though unsafely) carry out herself or with informal assistance - rather, of socially-organised medical intervention more extensive than might be required for childbirth.
4. Human solidarity is a basic idea of ours. We understand that the idea has evolved historically and socially. In modern society it has developed (while simultaneously being contradicted in practice by the workings of capitalist economics) to include solidarity with human beings unable to claim their rights for themselves, such as very frail elderly people or babies and small children. Our estimate is that this extension of solidarity is a positive step towards human self-emancipation, and will be continued (and upheld more in practice) by socialism. To include new-born babies (even premature ones) in human solidarity, but completely to exclude fetuses whose development towards full human powers may be more advanced than those babies', would make no sense.
5. Therefore our general policy is to uphold women's right to abortion, while recognising that there must be some threshhold of fetal development above which abortion shades over into something nearer infanticide, and is no longer a "right".
6. Since the development from single-cell embryo to human being is gradual, there is necessarily a grey area in fixing that threshhold. Given the adverse social pressures bearing down on many women, and the fact that abortions anywhere near the threshhold are rarely sought except in extreme cases, by women in great distress, our bias in judging the grey area should be in the direction of women's rights.
7. We agree with the principle whereby almost all countries' abortion laws, including the most liberal, state an upper limit - usually 20-odd weeks, 24 weeks in the Netherlands. Exactly where the limit should be set depends on scientific judgments and involves grey areas however good the scientific information. The balance of qualified medical opinion (e.g. the BMA) indicates that there is no compelling case for a reduction in the time limit in England and Wales. We should strongly oppose the widespread agitation which tries to use medical advances in care for very premature babies as a lever to push back abortion rights (including, in fact, for earlier abortions). But agitation for a radical increase in the time limit is neither right in principle nor likely to be other than counterproductive in practice.
8. In Britain and many other countries the law allows for abortions beyond the usual legal time limit in extreme cases such as danger to a woman's life. We support this provision, which necessarily involves some qualified medical judgment about whether the extreme circumstances apply.
9. Up to the legal time limit we are for abortion on request, i.e. the decision on an abortion to belong to the woman, without any requirement to seek endorsement from doctors. The requirement for doctors' endorsement will be a formality for well-off, well-connected women, but a big problem for many poorer women.
10. We should support the campaigns for early abortions on request (up to 14 weeks, as proposed by Voice For Choice, or up to 12 weeks, as already exists in many countries in Europe). This can be done without compromising the general position of women's right to decide on abortion up to the legal limit and certainly, in the current balance of forces, without undermining potential that would otherwise exist for a big immediate campaign for the stronger position. For real reasons, "on request" can be won more easily for abortions at a stage when they are very simple medical procedures.
11. We do not limit ourselves to demanding formal legal rights, but also fight for adequate substantive NHS provision to allow women requesting abortions to receive prompt attention in all regions and districts (in place of the current "postcode lottery", where effective access to abortion varies widely from one area to another). (This may include early abortions being carried out by qualified nurses rather than doctors, and in GP surgeries rather than in hospitals).
12. We are for the immediate extension to Northern Ireland of the abortion rights existing in Britain.
Counter-motion from Kate A
1. We are for the right of women to control their own bodies.
2. We fight for women's equality and liberation. This fight of necessity also includes the fight for better provision for children and parents, better sex education and free availability of contraception, economic equality and an end to poverty etc, many aspects of which are issues affecting not just women. The fight for women's equality and liberation must also include legal, safe and easy access to abortion.
3. We favour the formula "as early as possible, as late as necessary" as a fairly neat encapsulation of our position on abortion. The measure of a good abortion law is not a large number of abortions but a zero number of illegal abortions and a low or zero number of late abortions. In countries where abortion is more accessible, particularly when combined with a liberal and comprehensive sex education programme, abortion rates go down and late abortion rates go down further.
4. We reject the principle of setting arbitrary "time limits" defining when an abortion may be legal or not. Such an approach concedes a great deal of ground in the debate to the anti-abortion lobby and reduces the argument to the level of a scientific disagreement about when life "begins" rather than positioning the discussion about abortion within our general framework of a campaign in favour of women's equality and liberation and control over their own bodies.
5. With the acceptance of time limits also comes a debate about "exceptions" again falling into an acceptance of the generalised notion that women (at least in the later stages of pregnancy) are not people in their own right who can determine what happens to their own bodies, but are simply vessels for the protection of this new (potential) human being and that the rights of the foetus outweigh the rights of the mother and handing over control of the decision making process to medical professionals. Clearly however, the later on in a pregnancy the woman is, the more realistic it may be for her to consider other options such as adoption or finding assistance that may permit her to wish to care for the child herself. It should go without saying that women should be entitled to give informed consent to this medical procedure which should include a clear understanding of the risks to her own health of a late abortion, and of what other alternatives are available.
6. We recognise that there are increasing signs now of the beginnings of a concerted campaign to reduce still further women's access to legal abortion. We will support campaigns set up in opposition to these attacks and will further seek to promote the general principle of access to abortion "as early as possible as late as necessary". Within that general principle we should support moves which seek to extend the current access to and provision of abortion facilities, in particular supporting moves to legalise abortion on demand in the early stages of pregnancy, as well as campaigns to extend the practical accessibility under the existing law into areas of the country where access is limited (e.g. Birmingham) and to extend the existing law to Northern Ireland.
Discussion contribution: Pro-choice, defending the existing time limits, for time limits
By Cathy Nugent
Shared views in this debate
Last night (26 October) I attended a meeting of the Abortion Rights Campaign held to mark the 38th anniversary of the passing of the 1967 legislation. There were over 100 people there, many of them Labour MPs and nobility (it was held in the House of Lords!), but also many young women (and some men). The more interesting points raised in discussion were about the need to break down taboos surrounding abortion and to extend abortion rights. But when people spoke about this they did not say they wanted to drastically extend or scrap the existing time limits. If I had to guess I’d say some of the people in the audience (older people, leftists?) do support a "no time limits" position. But they do not make a fuss about it. I also guess that many people see the existing time limit as a more or less rational part of the legislation — they take it for granted now.
I say all this because I was struck by how odd it is to be discussing the issue of time limits at all when in the real world most people, including people who are passionately committed to abortion rights, either don’t see it as a real issue per se (as opposed to defending the existing limits). Nonetheless the demand or desire for "no time limits" has been raised as part of an informal internal debate and clearly some comrades see time limits as, in some shape or form, an infringement of women’s rights. So we should have the discussion.
This document is quite long, perhaps more than a bit out of proportion to the issue at hand — after all it’s not as if I’m in favour, all things being equal, of agitation for time limits. But what is at stake here is more to do with our ability to think and discuss rationally and to be politically consistent and therefore I wanted to run through the issues comprehensively.
The EC motion supports the current pro-choice campaign position to defend and extend abortion rights in the UK. There is much wrong with the existing law and provision but there is no basis for reducing the time limits now or in the foreseeable future.
The Abortion Rights Campaign argues for abortion on request up to 12-14 weeks. Tactically that makes some sense. Our position is that women should be able to get an abortion on request at any time up to the existing time limit. Women are in the best position — with help and advice — to make the choice.
There are a number of attacks against the existing time limit and we need to defend the right of women to obtain late abortions (beyond 20-22 weeks).
A major problem with the current 24 week time limit is that 24 weeks does not mean 24 weeks for all women, particularly those who need to get an abortion on the NHS. Women who cannot afford to pay for an abortion may not get an abortion after around 20 weeks (even from a charitable service).
The legislation and medical services also ought to give women who find out about a severe foetal abnormality late on in pregnancy enough time to make a clear decision on whether or not to continue with their pregnancy (that may need to be longer than a week or two).
Most political controversy about late abortions is disproportionate (only 1.6% of all abortions take place after 20 weeks) and ignorant about why women have late abortions.
The media focus on foetal development and fertility has been one-sided and to the detriment of abortion rights and women’s right to chose — to have or to not have a child.
Defending the existing time limits should involve pointing up these realities. This discussion should not detract from the urgent need to defend the existing time limit.
So far so much all sides in this discussion should have in common.
Why discuss time limits at all?
There never is a good time to have a discussion about what Janine calls the more "tricky" issues about abortion. Since the partial introduction of abortion rights in 1967 the fight to defend those rights has been very frequent. Comrades may feel that this discussion will undermine our defence of abortion rights. Kate Ahrens’ motion says explicitly that any acceptance of time limits concedes ground to the anti-abortionists…
But are these "tricky issues" all that tricky? Under discussion here are medical-scientific issues about foetal development and the political implications that may or may not flow out of our understanding of those. This may be something that comrades find emotionally difficult but it isn’t rocket science.
The medical-scientific evidence about foetal development will be the most disputed area of any attempt to reduce the time limits. A reduction of the limits — to 20 or 22 weeks — is most likely to be proposed on the grounds of improved survival rates of pre-term babies and therefore the increased viability of younger foetuses. And for this reason alone it is a debate that isn’t going to go away. The numbers of pre-term babies increase year on year in advanced capitalist societies. (That itself is partly down to social factors including poverty, but that’s another topic.) We therefore ought to be clear about the medical-scientific issues even if it is only for our own internal clarification.
An aside: There probably always is a lot of informal discussion about the rights as well as the wrongs of time limits at the edges of political campaigns to defend abortion rights. I remember discussing these during the 1987/88 attempt by the David Alton to outlaw late abortions. That discussion convinced me that time limits were necessary. I was happy then to defend the 28 week limit as more or less okay. Today, knowing a bit more about the subject, 24 weeks (or perhaps a little later) seems more or less okay too.
The controversy over time limits
There are a number of moves to rethink and change the existing time limits.
1. The most effective or dangerous attack may come from medical practitioners. Some of them will be working in conjunction with anti-abortionists. Most will be generally pro-choice and may act in conjunction with MPs (who are currently reviewing the law).
This summer the BMA debated time limits. The majority (77%) voted to retain the 24 week limit. Those who wanted a lower limit argued that survival rates for pre-term babies were increasing. Others argued, rightly, that lowering the abortion time limit to be in line with the "absolute best" survival rate for pre-term babies would unjustly penalise the few thousand women each year who need a late abortion.
Yes, under the best of conditions, about one per cent of babies can survive at 22 weeks, though the big majority with severe disabilities. But on the balance of current scientific evidence, the foetus at that stage is still far short of an average new-born baby’s level of human development: apparently it does not feel pain or have emotional reactions.
Some thousands of women each year don’t realise they’re pregnant, much less than this don’t realise that their foetus has severe abnormalities, and a few still deny to themselves they are pregnant until a late stage. Just under 3,000 go on to have an abortion at that late stage. To deny them a choice on the grounds of the marginal survival possibilities would be wrong.
The fact that a big majority of the BMA voted to retain the 24 week limit does not mean that the Parliamentary Committee debating the issue will fall into line with their view — they may decide to take a "cautious approach" on "viability" i.e. one that they find politically expedient and chip a bit off the time limit.
2. The situation will not be helped if pro-choice campaigners "trade off" later time limits for more liberal legislation on early abortions. Prior to the election David Steel said he would be willing to concede a small reduction in the time limit in exchange for legislation introducing abortion on request up to 12-14 weeks. That too would penalise women who will continue to need a late abortion no matter how liberal the law on early abortions.
3. Nor will it be helped by feminists (e.g. Naomi Woolf) arguing for a less "cavalier" approach to abortion. The softened up world view of middle class feminists who, having followed the minute by minute development of their foetuses, leads them to think they have the right to tell working class women they should think twice about having an abortion.
4. The hard-line anti-abortionists and religious nutters will be happy to join in with anyone hand-wringing over 24 weeks.
By all accounts there are a number of reactionary Tory MPs chomping at the bit to introduce Early Day Motions and Private Members Bills to reduce the time limits. In our depoliticised world where abortion rights are never discussed, let alone campaigned for, they think they can have success. They look to the US where there has been many recent attempts to limit women’s rights to abortion — particularly in the second trimester. Liam Fox can stand up and call for a 12 week limit during his campaign to be Tory leader and he’s not denounced a complete nutcase?!
For these people any chipping away at the existing time limits is a step in the right direction. They will be happy to sit back and watch softened up pro-choice campaigners and opportunistic MPs do part of the job for them.
So why time limits at all?
A foetus goes through many developmental stages as it gradually becomes a recognisable "human being". We say that all "human beings", babies and children included, should have the protection of the state, they should have legal rights, so why not foetuses? One problem is that the lines of foetal development are pretty fuzzy and therefore the point at which a foetus becomes more or less recognisable as a "human being" are inexact.
However, even with all the qualifications, we know there is a rough period (22-28 weeks) at which a normal foetus reaches a critical stage of development when:
o it has the brain and emotional development similar to that of a baby born at full-term (e.g. after 28 weeks, according to the latest research, a foetus will feel pain.)
o and it can survive outside the womb with medical intervention.
At this stage, beyond 22 weeks or thereabouts, medically terminating the pregnancy is more like delivering a baby early but making sure you kill it in the process, than an early abortion. It is not a matter of a woman exercising personal autonomy but of elaborate social-medical intervention.
How is this different from the views of the anti-abortionists?
There is a big difference between recognising that a foetus reaches a critical stage of development and believing as a consequence it should at that point have some human status and believing, as the anti-abortionists do, that a human being, a personality, is created at conception. Theirs is a metaphysical construction; for all their diagrams of foetal development, their definitions are not rooted in medical-scientific knowledge. But it is equally metaphysical to think that a foetus is entirely non-human a week or a day before birth, then becomes a human being suddenly at the instant of birth.
None of this should lead to squeamishness about abortion in general. Embryos and young foetuses are not human beings. To accept a different status for more developed foetuses does have the advantage of clarifying what you think about the earlier stages of foetal development and should help us address the taboos and moral complications which surround abortion.
Foetal development and the political implications
It is not possible to pin-point a particular day or week at which a foetus reaches a the critical stage of development beyond which we should give it some protection. What the exact time should be depends on a number of factors relating both to the foetus and pregnant women.
For example the survival rate for pre-term babies. Those born at 22 and 23 weeks do survive, but even with the most advanced technology the percentages remains very low, and is likely to remain very low.
For example the tests for foetal abnormality become possible only at about 20 weeks.
For example teenagers, women using some forms of contraception, women not using contraception when breastfeeding, women who have irregular periods, women who do not have pregnancy symptoms in early pregnancy, etc, etc, may not realise they are pregnant until about 20 weeks or even more.
All things considered the 24-week limit coincides, roughly, with the critical developmental stage we have described, while still giving women who need a late abortion enough ability, in theory, to get it.
There will quite rightly be exceptions beyond 24 weeks e.g. where a woman’s life has to be saved or where the foetus is drastically impaired. But these are different kinds of medical interventions and I think, properly speaking, they are not abortions at all.
The EC motion does not conclude that this developed foetus has more rights than that of a pregnant woman or that a pregnant woman has no rights. It says that a developed foetus has some rights and therefore a woman should not have all the rights or the right to terminate the life of a developed foetus.
Beyond a certain point in a pregnancy there needs to be a balance between the rights of a woman and a developed foetus. Or if you want to be less cold-blooded about it, to do the best for the woman and her unborn foetus in an awful situation. "Doing the best" is often not good. Continuing with an unwanted pregnancy or considering adoption are not good options.
Society already does grant developed foetuses protection — it helps pre-term babies to survive, it recognises that they are worth saving. It does that because, thankfully, society no longer regards babies and children as lesser mortals than adults and/or the property of their parents. Of course it is not an analogous situation to save the life of a pre-term baby and to be faced with an unwanted pregnancy. Nonetheless beyond a certain stage, very late on in pregnancy you are faced with a logical inconsistency if you are for no time limits and if you are for abortion up to term.
Children’s rights are in practice very limited in our society but in principle babies and children have some rights. If you think that babies and children should have rights — it is a nonsense for you to regard some developed foetuses as disposable while others are worth saving.
Do time limits make women suffer?
Those who argue for abortion "up to term" or even for time limits much higher than 24 weeks, logically, ought to believe the following things:
- that a significant number of women suffer because there are time limits on abortion and this is unacceptable.
- that these women will suffer from not getting an abortion beyond the suffering of any very late abortion.
- a foetus at a post-28 week or higher stage either does not suffer or its suffering is very insignificant compared to that of the woman.
- a foetus, even at 36 or 37 or 38 weeks, should not have the same rights as babies and children.
But advocates of "up to term" do not think about, address, or explain these issues. For instance they never estimate or speculate about how many women would need an abortion beyond the time limit. All they say is that a woman’s rights are absolute. If a woman chooses to have a very late abortion she must have very good reasons for doing so. That is her business. They imply that if only one woman a year needed a very late abortion that would be good enough to do away with the time limits.
This is a cop out and not only because it avoids the issue of rights for the recognisably human foetus. It makes everything too easy to argue for. Advocates of "up to term" are concerned only about a (completely hypothetical) woman who will suffer because of time limits. Why? Because they want to uphold the idea that women must have all the rights. That is a corruption of the notion of women’s rights which we all support.
"Women’s rights" does not mean that women should have all the rights in this or any other circumstance. We are socialists. Democrats. Other human beings also have rights.
We have to address the issue of late abortion less casually, not argue on the basis of first principles, and actually attempt to answer the question: do women suffer with time limits.
I think it very probable that some women suffer because of the existing time limits.
First because they are not implemented evenly.
Second because 24 weeks (or even a little later) does not give some women enough time to make a decision. But if abortion were available easily, on request, up to 24 weeks, the number of such women would be very small indeed. The current problems arise mostly from the delays and obstructions women may face in seeking abortions after realising very late that they are pregnant, or that their (as yet undeveloped) foetus is severely damaged.
But we do not yet have abortion on request. Right now some women, their unborn children, their existing children will suffer. Without specifically surveying women to ask them if they would seek an abortion beyond 24 weeks you cannot assess the degree to which women suffer as a result of time limits. You might assume (and hope) that these numbers are small because the number of current late abortions are small, but you cannot know for sure.
This much we do know. There is a problem with terminating very late pregnancies.
I would prefer not to hide behind formulas about a woman’s right to choose in each and every circumstance but to face up to the fact that time limits may cause some women to suffer. And to come to the conclusion, on balance, that time limits are still necessary. We want to give a uniform degree of protection to both babies and similarly developed foetuses. We are not in favour of infanticide.
What’s wrong with Kate’s motion?
Kate advocates the slogan "As early as possible, as late as necessary". That formula is meant to say that women should be able to get a late abortion if they find themselves in an "exceptional" situation. Where the pregnancy has not been discovered until late on. Where a late scan has revealed a severe foetal abnormality. It is not meant to necessarily imply no time limits. Kate however uses the slogan in conjunction with the statement, "We reject the principle of setting arbitrary ‘time limits’." In other words, as early as possible, as late as you like.
Kate’s combination of a slogan which traditionally, and in practice, never meant "no time limits" with advocating "no time limits" is muddled. It is also wrong.
The time limits that the EC motion accepts as necessary are not arbitrary. It is true that there is a philosophical debate about when a "human being" comes about, at conception, at birth or somewhere in between — when a foetus becomes self aware for instance. It is true that you can take almost every developmental stage and make the case, some much more scientific than others, for this being the beginning of human life. And from that point of view time limits may seem arbitrary.
However we are not really concerned with the philosophical debates here. We simply say that it does not make logical sense for society to give human status and rights to a premature baby and not to a foetus at the same or more advanced stage of development. We are concerned with socially established practices being consistent. We think that if we are to give babies and small children rights — as we should — these should be consistent.
Anyone who seriously advocates no time limits as Kate does, ought to face up to the reality of disposing of late term foetuses. It is not very different from delivering the baby early, but making sure it is killed in the process. It is very different from early abortion. It is different from the late abortions that currently take place. It is akin to infanticide and we do not approve of infanticide.
We may want to treat a desperate woman, who kills or recklessly abandons a new born baby, with humanity. But at the same time we want to outlaw, stop and wherever appropriate punish infanticide.
But Kate actually does not want to positively advocate very late term abortion, of course she doesn’t, who would? The problem here is that she does not follow through logically what she is, by implication, advocating, i.e. infanticide. So she winds up qualifying her "no time limits" formula. She also says "Clearly however the later on in pregnancy the woman is, the more realistic it may be for her to consider other options…" In other words she does thinks there is a problem with very late abortion!
Why does Kate want to have it both ways — no time limits but not to be for late abortions? She tell us: it is because she does not want to concede ground to the anti-abortionists.
In practice we might avoid tangling with the anti-abortionists over the issues of foetal development, because we are for defending the existing time limits. But say we do have to have a wrangle with them on this issue… So what! The sky won’t fall in. It is perfectly possible to counterpose some reasonable, objective realities about foetal development to their metaphysical ones.
The advocacy of "No Time Limits" (NTL) is a bit like the "Troops out of Ireland" (TOI) slogan. Three comparisons.
1. NTL, like TOI, allows you to appear radical and by extension to counterpose yourself to a political opponent. In the case of TOI, the British state. In the case of NTL the anti-abortionists.
2. The slogan is vulnerable to critical attack. An objective bystander might in the case of TOI say, "what about people killing each other, what about the prospect of civil war?" A similar "voice of reason" might say in relation to NTL, "aren’t 36 week old foetuses babies really?"
3. The slogan allows you to be radical without any responsibility — no one’s going to implement it. The troops were never going to get out of Ireland during the 1980s and no medical practitioner (surgeon it would have to be) in the UK today would abort a 30 week or 36 week old foetus.
As I say Kate isn’t advocating a clear slogan "No Time Limits" in her motion. She uses a slogan which advocates exceptional late abortion to imply no time limits (and therefore approving all circumstances and none acceptance of the "exceptions" argument) while at the same time recognising that there might be something wrong with very late abortions. If there is something wrong with very late abortions surely it is right to limit the circumstances in which they take place, or in other words to advocate only "exceptions" beyond a certain time limit.
One final analogy: I think this "no time limits" hang up is also a bit like the debate over the age of consent (in which Kate has argued in the past against an age of consent). Those who oppose an age of consent say that though they think a 12 year old child should not have sex with a 30 year old they don’t think there should be an age of consent because it undermines the freedom of young people to explore and express their sexuality. Those who are in favour of an age of consent say that children and young people both need freedom and protection, one does not necessarily contradict the other. So too is it with abortion time limits. They need to be there, they are a rational part of abortion legislation, but they do not necessarily contradict a woman’s right to choose.
The EC motion is an attempt to balance different considerations about a narrow issue of time limits, within the context of the — much more important — wider issues about a woman’s right to chose.
We support the principle of time limits, but we are liberal about the implementation of those limits. Women must have the time they need to make their decision. We want to see a much greater liberalisation of abortion law. We want to protect and defend the small number of women who need a late abortion each year.
We think beyond a certain stage of development a foetus or premature baby should be given protection.
Our general bias towards rights throughout pregnancy are to those of the pregnant women. This view has nothing to do with those of the anti-abortionists who, for religious or perverse philosophical reasons, think human life starts at conception.
We militantly defend abortion rights. We do not regard abortion as the shameful act of an irresponsible or selfish person but an act of great social responsibility. We want to be consistent in our socialist approach and apply principles of human solidarity to all involved in sometimes difficult and complex situations.
Response by Kate Ahrens
I confess to being very confused by Cathy's reply to my alternative motion on abortion. Cathy begins by expressing her surprise at our discussion of time limits happening at all since in the "real world" people "don't see it as a real issue per se". Indeed. In fact, in the "real world" the only people raising the question of time limits are the anti-abortion lobby looking to reduce the limits beyond what they already are. And yet it is not my motion but rather the EC motion that puts the issue of time limits centre stage in our debate.
Cathy then goes on to correctly identify that "Most political controversy about late abortions is disproportionate (only 1.6% of all abortions take place after 20 weeks) and ignorant about why women have late abortions." and that "The media focus on foetal development and fertility has been one-sided and to the detriment of abortion rights and women's right to chose - to have or to not have a child." are issues that all sides agree on, but the rest of her document is a negation of these points. It focuses on foetal development, to the detriment of our defence of abortion rights and women's right to choose and it appears entirely disproportionate about the importance of late abortions as opposed to access to abortions in general and about why women might be in a position to want a late abortion.
Cathy says that my advocacy of the slogan "as early as possible as late as necessary" as an alternative to supporting a particular time limit is suborning the slogan as an anti-time limit slogan which it never was. Does Cathy therefore think that this slogan is compatible with a support for an arbitrary time limit? I don't see how it can be. "As late as necessary" means just that. If it is "necessary" in a particular woman's situation to have an abortion at 27 or 28 or even 33 weeks, then I would support the right of that woman to have access to a safe, legal abortion. Of course, the question of what precisely constitutes "necessary" then becomes a significant question but it is a significant question for the woman concerned anyway regardless of what the law says.
The medico-legal discussions about viability of premature foetuses is, it seems to me, a complete red herring in the discussion about late abortion. For the overwhelming majority of women seeking a late abortion, there are medical reasons why the foetus is not going to be viable ever, never mind at 24 weeks. In virtually all discussions amongst liberal reformist supporters of limited access to abortion there is some acknowledgement that there are "exceptional circumstances" where a pregnancy could be terminated after a legal limit, and Cathy's reply also contains a vague reference to a need for "women who find out about a severe foetal abnormality late on in pregnancy enough time to make a clear decision on whether or not to continue with their pregnancy (that may need to be longer than a week or two)." How does Cathy propose to allow these decisions to be made after a legal time limit? I would argue that a key player in the determination of what those "exceptional circumstances" might be should be the woman herself and that the best way of doing that is to argue for the right to abortion in terms described by the slogan "as early as possible, as late as necessary".
Conversely, "viability" or "critical human development" of foetuses does not seem to me to be the deciding factor for determining the "humanity" of an unborn child. When I was pregnant with Sophie and Gregory they were loved, and protected, and regarded as human beings long before they reached a particular stage of gestation. Had I miscarried I would have mourned the death of a child, and had either of them been born prematurely, even at 20 or 22 weeks, I would have wished for the best possible medical intervention to save them. Gestational stages don't really come into the equation.
Cathy also tries some clumsy sleight of hand when she suggests that "There will quite rightly be exceptions beyond 24 weeks e.g. where a woman's life has to be saved or where the foetus is drastically impaired. But these are different kinds of medical interventions and I think, properly speaking, they are not abortions at all."
But of course these absolutely still are abortions with all the attendant problems that Cathy outlines for any other late abortion. The foetus still feels pain, the procedure is still a drastic medical intervention, the process is still akin to giving birth. None of Cathy's objections to other late abortions are removed just because in these circumstances Cathy decides that its ok to have an abortion. My contention is that we should campaign for the woman concerned to be able to make that decision.
Why then does my motion explicitly reject the idea of time limits? Am I, as Cathy argues an "advocate of no time limits" or somehow in favour of late abortions? No, of course not. Nobody would say to an individual woman who was considering having an abortion "why don't you wait a few months and have a late abortion, that's a much better idea". And I am not proposing the formula "as early as possible, as late as necessary" in order to secretly espouse the position "no time limits" and hope that no-one notices. I think this formula is the one that best expresses our position - that seeks to minimise the women who are ever in a position to have to consider abortion beyond the point where the procedure is much simpler, much safer for the woman and much less emotionally difficult for both the woman and the health professionals carrying it out, but that recognises that there will be situations where women are forced into making very difficult decisions late on in a pregnancy and that they should have the ability and right to make those choices and decisions themselves.
To accept, as the EC motion does that it is reasonable to frame the discussion in terms of precisely where the time limit should be fixed, in particular, to accept that the *reason* for time limits is connected to the ability of the foetus to feel pain or to the possibilities of survival of babies born at a particular stage of gestation is to hand to the anti-abortionists all the tools they require to chip away at abortion rights until they are gone completely. It is not so long ago that doctors generally believed that young children felt no pain and just because there are now medical techniques that can identify recognisable pain responses in foetuses of a particular gestation I don't believe that it follows at all to say that earlier gestational stages cannot feel pain - they may just not have developed the motor skills necessary to express them. Does that mean that in ten years time when further neurological studies show that foetuses brains can register pain at 20 weeks Cathy will advocate that 20 weeks becomes a limit? What about if premature babies start being saved at 18 weeks? Does that become the new limit? Where then can we draw the line - having accepted that the line is drawn not by the principle of a woman's control over her body but by medical declarations.
Cathy is right that in the "real world" of the pro-choice movement, this debate is simply not happening. That's part of the reason that I was so shocked by the way that the EC motion was framed. But since the EC have set the scene for the debate inside the group in this way, that is how we have to proceed. I consider that the right outcome of our debate, however oddly it was posed, is to assert a clear view in favour of a woman's right to abortion as early as possible as late as necessary and for the practical expression of that position to be involvement in campaigns to defend existing rights to abortion against the expected attacks, and to fight for the extension in practical terms of women's access to abortion through better facilities and through changing the law to allow abortion on request (either to a 12 or 14 week limit or the full legal limit, whatever the campaign was for).
Response by Cathy N
I'll reply in a little more detail to the substance of Kate's arguments at the end of the week - maybe other comrades will too.
For now: on Kate's agitation about her "shock" over the EC's framing of the discussion. Yet again then about the chain of events.
Kate says the EC is putting the issue of time limits centre stage. We have "set the scene". No. The EC is responding to a discussion that has arisen in the group - in the student fraction - on time limits. The comrades want clarification on this issue. We could do one of four things.
1. Tell the comrades to write your own motion, anything they like and including "abortion up to term" and say we'll go along with it because we can't be bothered to have the debate. (Incidentally it would be good if student comrades who have been involved in discussions *could* write amendments etc).
2. Tell the comrades it's not an issue in the real world so they can't have a formal debate in the group. Go discuss it among yourselves and don't bother us!
3. Tell the comrades it's not a big issue in the real world so though they can have a formal debate about abortion they can only spend say, 5% of the time for it on the actual area of disagreement.
4. Recognise there is a disagreement. Some of us do not agree with the right of abortion up to term (except in medical emergencies). As long as laws exist, time limits are a functional part of that position. Some of us accept abortion up to term (and, hypothetically at least, not just for medical emergencies). They think that time limits contradict a woman's right to choose. Some people, no doubt have variations on these positions. Recognise if there is a difference we should have a debate about it. Accept that the debate is going to be skewed but do your best to put it into a broader context (as I was in my document). Take a vote at the end of the discussion which you hope will agree an comprehensive policy.
The EC chose to do 4. If comrades think this is the wrong approach they should argue for a different procedure.
Two further points;
The EC motion does attempt to put the item of controversy into a balanced context.
For a more "balanced" article on woman's right to choose (i.e. one that is not an explanation of a particular motion related to a particular internal debate) see my report of Abortion Rights meeting in forthcoming paper this week.