The history of abortion legislation in the United Kingdom is more complicated than one may initially think.
Although we generally think of abortion as being legal since the introduction of the 1967 Abortion Act, this isn’t necessarily the case. The law allows for a legal defence of abortions – as long as they occur before 24 weeks into the gestation period and as long as two doctors approve. And this is only in Britain – at the time of writing, abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland.
Abortion is understandably a sensitive topic and is one that divides opinion. Although on the face of it, Britain is a pro-choice nation (very few people polled would want abortion criminalised), there are many variations in how the British public would like to see this issue handled by the government.
A 2017 ComRes poll indicated that 70 percent want the limit lowered, with 59 percent wanting it at 16 weeks or lower.
A YouGov poll from 2012 found that 49 percent of British women supported a reduction of the upper limit for legal abortions.
Perhaps the most illustrative of the complexity of public consensus on abortion was a YouGov/Daily Telegraph poll from 2005, which revealed that 30 percent of people polled wanted the upper limit lowered to 20 weeks, whilst 25 percent were happy for it to remain the way it was. Only 6 percent and 2 percent supported what one might call the ‘extreme’ positions – allowing abortion at any point in pregnancy and banning it altogether, respectively.
Parliament have debated changes to the law for decades, with only a few amendments ever making it through the House. In 1990, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act lowered the limit from 28 weeks to 24 weeks and removed the limits for late term abortions in cases of risk to life, foetal abnormality and mental injury to the mother.
Attempts to lower the limit to 22 weeks or 20 weeks were voted down in 2008 – the former was defeated by 303 to 233 votes and the latter by 332 to 190 votes.
Nadine Dorries, the Conservative MP for Mid Bedfordshire, famously made an attempt to amend the 2011 Health and Social Care Bill so that women seeking abortions could be offered alternative counselling. Dorries argued that abortion providers had a ‘vested interest’ in encouraging women to terminate their pregnancies.
But beyond the legislation and the opinion polls, how do Britons discuss the issue of abortion? Not very well, in my opinion.
As the issue is a sensitive one, there’s understandably a great deal of passion on both sides of the debate. The MP for Walthamstow, Stella Creasy, recently felt harassed when billboards were erected in her constituency, depicting a foetus and calling upon onlookers to visit stopstella.com. The Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (CBR) would argue they’re calling attention to Creasy’s voting record on issues of abortion, while defenders of Creasy would see the billboards as a hateful attack on her character.
CBR’s website insists that they condemn ‘all violence against those who perform, procure or promote abortion and refuses to work or be associated with any group or individual who refuses to condemn such violence.’ But looking over to the United States, we can clearly see that violence can be carried out against abortion clinics, in the name of protecting the unborn.
Beyond launching attacks at each other, both sides of the debate need to come together for a reasonable discussion.
Why do so many women feel they need to get abortions? What can be done to help uncertain mothers? How can we, as a society, foster a conversation without descending into insults or campaigns of harassment?
In my opinion, censoring the opposition only drives the debate underground. Pro-life student societies have been set up at the University of Birmingham, the University of Nottingham and the University of Aberdeen, and all have faced push-back and efforts to have them banned.
An open and honest discussion of values needs to take place. As opinion polls show, the public’s thinking on this issue is far from clear-cut.