Trawling for change on abortion

Yvonne Roberts says one area where GPs’ workload could be
lightened is that of approving abortions.

For the eighty women from the Irish Republic who had hoped to
have abortions on the converted fishing trawler, Aurora, anchored
12 miles off Dublin in international waters, it is particularly
tragic that the project has been holed on the rocks of bureaucracy.
Dr Rebecca Gomperts, founder of the Women on Waves project, and
head of the team who planned to carry out the terminations, raised
expectations without doing her homework before setting sail.

It transpires she has yet to acquire a Dutch abortion licence.
Still, the boat’s arrival highlights once again the hypocrisy and
crass unfairness that rules the provision of abortion in Ireland
and in parts of the UK.

As the Aurora sailed into Dublin harbour last week so the
Northern Ireland Family Planning Association (fpaNI) in Belfast was
winning the right to a full judicial review of medical practices
relating to abortion services. While abortion is banned in the
Republic, in the north, who qualifies for an NHS abortion is left
in the hands of the medical profession. fpaNI hopes the judicial
review will result in clear guidelines permitting all women to have
equal rights to abortion provision.

In 1999, 70 women had abortions in Northern Ireland while
another 1,500 travelled to England, paying between £450 and
£900 for travel and medical expenses. Almost 6,000 travel
annually from the Irish Republic. Once they arrive in England,
under the terms of the Abortion Act 1967, they require the approval
of two doctors before a termination can be conducted up to the 24th
week of pregnancy.

Legalised abortion ought to be available in both north and south
Ð but it is also time to look again at the casting of the 1967
act. A survey conducted by family planning organisation Marie
Stopes International two years ago revealed that 60 per cent of GPs
believe that the law should be changed to allow women easier
abortions within the first three months of pregnancy by removing
the need for a doctor’s approval.

But should doctors play a role even later in pregnancy? Abortion
‘on demand’ would not mean, as some anti-abortion campaigners
insist, that all women would immediately resort to terminations as
their preferred form of contraception. It is equally ridiculous to
argue, as do some in the pro-choice lobby, that abortion is always
a decision that is taken with much grief and anguish. Two out of
three women have had an abortion, some have had more than one.
Reaction to a termination varies hugely not only between women but
also within one woman’s lifetime.

A religiously inclined single 20-something no doubt would feel
very differently about a termination than, say, a humanist
40-year-old mother of two. Some women will treat abortion lightly,
others will be plagued by guilt. The approval of two doctors and an
obligatory session of counselling have little influence one way or
the other on that range of response. Instead, it is a charade which
infantilises women.

As Ann Furedi of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service says,
women do not request an abortion because they are ignorant of
advances in foetal development but because, for a variety of
reasons, they find their pregnancy intolerable. So why should a GP
act as judge?

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