Commons committee validates pro-choice position

// 1 November 2007

Well the Commons Science and Technology Committee has published its report following its inquiry into scientific developments relevant to the time limit for abortion.

You’ve probably noticed that we’ve been all over this one (I describe the purpose of the inquiry here, Abby covers media discussions prompted by the enquiry here and here, Louise summarises a Marie Stopes report released to coincide with the enquiry here, Samara ridicules comments made on the subject by Lord Steele here, and zohra outlines pro-choice actions you can take here). However I’ve just realised we’ve failed to cover the outcome! Lax …

Anyhow, better late than never.

The report was published on Sunday, and is available here. The main conclusions and recommendations are:

  • Viability rates of babies born prematurely at 24 weeks have not increased significantly, although some potentially significant research is currently underway: “we have seen no good evidence to suggest that foetal viability has improved significantly since the abortion time limit was last set, and seen some good evidence to suggest that it has not”.

  • There is no evidence that pain is felt by foetuses below the current time limit, and it is nevertheless irrelevant to abortion law (NB – this is because current guidelines take a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach to the possibilty of pain, and routinely ensure the foetus is dead before extraction and that pain medication is administered if appropriate).
  • New imaging techniques are useful in terms of diagnosing foetal abnormality, but “provide no scientific insights on the question of foetal science”.
  • More data should be collected to understand the reasons that women seek abortion at a late stage, including those who are forced to travel overseas.
  • Department of Health guidance should be provided as to what constitutes “seriously handicapped” in the case of foetal abnormality, and more data should be collected regarding the reasons for abortion beyond 24 weeks.
  • The two signatures rule may cause unnecessary delay in access to abortion services: “If a goal of public policy is to encourage early as opposed to later abortion, we believe there is a strong case for removing the requirement for two doctors’ signatures“.
  • The General Medical Council should make clear that doctors who conscientiously object to abortion have a duty to alert patients as soon as the issue arrises and immediately refer them to another doctor.
  • Suitably trained nurses should be permitted to sign the consent form and prescribe the chemical abortion drugs which they already administer.
  • Suitably trained nurses and midwives could be permitted to carry out early surgical abortions.
  • There is no new evidence to contradict the current guidelines regarding the links between abortion and mental health risk, future reproductive outcomes, breast cancer or post abortion infection.
  • Pro-life organisations who make misleading claims to offer pregnancy counselling should be required to indicate clearly in their advertising that they do not support referrals for abortion.

This is a fantastic result. It only confirms what pro-choice campaigners have been saying for years, but now our argument has been further validated by proper scrutiny at government level. We can only hope that this will lay to rest the pernicious calls for reduced access to abortion from the anti-abortion lobby, who have been trying to erode popular support for abortion by undermining confidence in the current scientific and medical guidelines. Maybe, if we’re really lucky, we might be able to stop fighting for our reproductive rights, a mere 40 years after they were granted.

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