My amendment is bigger than yours

// 4 July 2008

Last week I reported on Nadine Dorries’ latest attempt to restrict access to abortion: she has tabled another amendment on reducing the time limit to twenty weeks onto the HFE Bill currently working its way through Parliament. Unity picked it up at Liberal Conspiracy and linked it to a real life example of why a twenty-four week limit, as a minimum not a maximum in my opinion, is so important.

I also reported on Evan Harris’ two pro-choice amendments, which Jess wrote about in more detail, and Kate at Liberal Conspiracy also discussed. Harris’ amendments effectively target two of the three key areas that some people believe need to be liberalized in the Abortion Act: the two doctor rule and who can perform abortions. The third is where abortions can take place. Abortion Rights and the Green Party have more on the pro side for all three proposals, and the BMA has a bit on the con on the latter two.

I speculated that Dorries’ amendment was in response to Harris’ (co-tabled by Chris McCafferty and Frank Dobson respectively), but was confused about her tactics, though some of you had some good theories.

Today I bring you the Amendment Olympics. On Wednesday and Thursday, six more amendments linked to the Abortion Act were tabled. Plus three additional ones by Vincent Cable that seem like they’re not related to the Act, but which I can’t be sure of because, frankly, I don’t understand them. And one by William Cash which really don’t seem related to abortions, but you never know. Here goes.

Frank Field has tabled two amendments, possibly in response to Evan Harris’, on the two doctor rule. The first reads:

(1A) For the purposes of subsection (1), the required number of registered medical practitioners is—
(a) one, in the case of a pregnancy which has not exceeded its thirteenth week,
(b) two, in the case of a pregnancy which has exceeded its thirteenth week but has not exceeded its twenty-fourth week, or
(c) three, in the case of a pregnancy which has exceeded its twenty-fourth week.

So, to recap, Evan Harris has moved to remove the two doctor rule on the basis that, I imagine, (a) women are capable of thinking for themselves; (b) women should be able to decide what happens to their bodies without seeking permission from others, medical or otherwise; and (c) no other medical procedure needs two doctors’ permission, not even open heart surgery or something that could, you know, kill you.

Frank Field on the other hand seems to think that Evan Harris’ proposals are all a bit too revolutionary. Surely, some kind of check and control is needed to prevent women from rampantly aborting their unwanted pregnancies willy nilly. And evidently, the danger of willy-nillying gets worse the longer a woman has been pregnant, so more control is needed after thirteen weeks. Does anyone know what’s so special about thirteen weeks?

No wait, that’s not it, it’s not that women are less able to take responsible decisions about their own bodies and lives as time passes. It’s that abortions should be harder to get after thirteen and twenty-four weeks because, um… Hang on a minute, that sounds like the time-limit restriction argument!

It’s not that we’re against abortion or anti-woman, it’s that it all gets a bit more complicated the longer a woman’s been pregnant such that her body becomes less and less her own and more and more society’s/the state’s/the purview of pretty much everybody else.

It could be that Field is actually in favour of easing access to abortion, but feels that Harris’ proposals won’t pass and so has tabled amendments he thinks would be less controversial. But he voted to reduce the time limit to twenty and twenty-two weeks, which makes me suspicious. On the other hand, the introduction of a three doctor rule after twenty-four weeks, which he offers a second time in another amendment, is an interesting twist. Thoughts?

Frank Field’s second amendment reads:

(1A) For the purposes of subsection (1), the required number of registered medical practitioners is—    
(a) two, in the case of a pregnancy which has not exceeded its twenty-fourth week, or
(b) three, in the case of a pregnancy which has exceeded its twenty-fourth week.

Nadine Dorries has introduced another amendment which reads:

(1)The Abortion Act 1967 (c. 87) is amended as follows.
(2) After section 1(1)(d) insert—
“( ) In section 1(1)(d) the term “seriously handicapped” does not include club foot, cleft lip, cleft palate or cleft lip and palate”.

I’m not trying to dismiss a conversation about the ethical dilemmas of abortion as they relate to disability rights, but I would argue that invoking these rights in this way is a ploy by Davies.

Jacqui Lait meanwhile has, helpfully, tabled two pro-choice amendment easing restrictions on where abortions can take place. The first reads:

(1) The Abortion Act 1967 (c. 87) is amended as follows.
 (2) In section 1(3), after “Service trust or”, insert “or in any location where a health care provider provides primary care under a contract with a commissioner of NHS services.”

The second, which only makes sense if you read it in the context of the actual Act, reads:

(1) The Abortion Act 1967 (c.87) is amended as follows.
(2) In section 1(3A) omit the words ‘consisting primarily in the use of such medicines’.

Chris McCafferty has also tabled an amendment but I’m not certain (I keep changing my mind) what it’s all about so will throw it open for any and all to debate:

(1) The Abortion Act 1967 (c.87) is amended as follows.
(2) After section 1(3) insert—
“(3A) For the purposes of subsection (3) such treatment for the termination of pregnancy consisting primarily of the use of medicines shall include the prescription but not the administration of a medicine which precipitates the expulsion of the products of conception provided that—
(i) medicines which end the pregnancy have been prescibed and administered in accordance with this section as part of the same course of medical treatment,
(ii) the administration is under the direction of a registered health care practioner, and
(iii) the pregnancy has not exceeded the ninth week.
(3B) The Secretary of State may make regulations which amend the provisions of subsections 3A of this section.
(3C) Regulations under subsection (3B) shall be made by statutory instrument.
(3D) No regulations may be made under subsection (3B) unless a draft of the instrument containing the regulations has been laid before, and approved by resolution of, each House of Parliament.”

The date for the Report Stage and Third Reading of the Bill have also now been set for 14 July so we don’t have a lot of time to get our heads around these amendments so that we can start lobbying our MPs.

Photo by alexandralee, shared under a Creative Commons license

Comments From You

Unity // Posted 4 July 2008 at 3:35 pm

As I read it, the McCafferty amendment relates to the use of abortifactant drugs (RU486, etc.) up to 9 weeks gestation and its an enabling clause. In effect, it grant the Secretary of State for the Health to use a statutory instrument to regulate when and when these drugs can be used without having to seek a change to the Act itself.

If I’m right, its about paving the way for allowing women having an abortion before 9 weeks by means of an abortifcant drug to choose whether they prefer to go to a clinic or stay in the comfort of their own home.

Frank Field and the Nadine Dorries are trying to put gum up the works, on post 24 week abortions in particular, by chucking in the requirement for a third doctor’s opinion.

Three doctors is excessive and can only be either a delaying tactic of the ‘if we make them wait a bit longer they their mind’ variety or a desperate attempt to get something into the Bill so they whole campaign doesn’t end up looking an abject failure. [edited]

Sarah // Posted 4 July 2008 at 4:36 pm

Three doctors? What on earth is the point of that? Surely doctors have better things to do with their time than this pointless paperwork just to make misogynists feel better. I would have thought the agreement of one doctor (the one performing the abortion) would be fine – he/she can always ask a colleague for a second opinion if unsure, presumably this is the normal way things work for other procedures?

This seems to be the nature of the anti-abortion movement today though. There are few who will say outright that they think abortion should be banned – even if that is what they personally believe, they presumably know it would be difficult to get much support for it. Few people want to go back to the bad old ‘Vera Drake’ days, or imagine their own daughter or sister or wife dying from an unsafe, illegal abortion, and that is what rhetoric about a ban evokes. So they say they’re not against women having abortions, just introduce ways to make it more difficult and annoying for them, place more obstacles in their way, introduce pointless and unnecessary restrictions on when/where/how they can have the abortion. Which I guess appeals to people who are not willing to completely let go of abortion rights, but just uncomfortable enough with the thought of women making decisions about their own bodies and lives to want to punish them by making their lives as difficult as possible. It’s petty and nasty and utterly impossible to justify logically or medically, and it has no place in serious political discourse. Or, ideally it shouldn’t have.

Sarah // Posted 4 July 2008 at 4:57 pm

Oh, and it’s dishonest and hypocritical as well – if you really believed abortion was ‘murdering babies’ and hence morally unjustifiable then you wouldn’t be pissing about with time limits and numbers of signatures and the like, because it would be wrong no matter when it happened or who signed what piece of paper. It’s about punishing women for the enjoyment of misogynists, pure and simple.

eleanargh // Posted 4 July 2008 at 5:13 pm

Apologies for the flippant comment on a serious post, but: I heart Evan Harris. I want to give him a hug.

Torygirl // Posted 4 July 2008 at 8:40 pm

A lot of the time I’m too exhausted by the end of the day (when I open the paper and swith on the computer) to start reading about abortion wars.

There are two points, though, that I’d like to make having (imperfectly) read this post and comments so far.

Firstly, (and I’m sure it’s been answered elsewhere but as I say, I’m usually too tired) I would be interested to know how many pregnancies are actually terminated after 20 weeks for social reasons in Britain anyway. I’d hazard a guess that it’s very small number.

Secondly, the pro-choice movement should be exactly that. The choice not only to access legal termination of pregnancy but the choice also to have your baby if you want, whatever your age or circumstance without being bundled off to an unmarried mothers’ home and having your lovely, gurgling, dimpled baby forcibly adopted.

I would genuinely hope that’s what the three doctors business is about. To keep real choice open for women (young? unmarried? mental health?) and to be realistic that in a number of circumstances women are still pressured into having abortions they don’t want to have. I would suggest that this is particularly the case with pregnant adolescents who typically present much further along their pregnancy than older women.

Shea // Posted 5 July 2008 at 2:25 am

Well said Sarah theres not much to add.

@ Torygirl

“I would genuinely hope that’s what the three doctors business is about.”

It isn’t. Its about further restricting access. I also love Evan Harris, the man is pure logic. Get rid of the need for doctors to sign off on abortions. How the hell does a GP who sees a woman for five minutes, accurately or fairly assess her personal/emotional/social situation? Its a phenomenonal arrogance (nice bit of mercantilism from the BMA though).

Mifepristone (the abortion pill, RU 486) should be administered by nurses and given to women in sexual health clinics or their own homes, its far, far safer than surgical abortion and safer still than childbirth (I’d also make the morning after pill available to buy over the counter ). Make abortion faster, easier, less distressing and easier to access and I promise you, you will cut the number of late term abortions.

“To keep real choice open for women(young? unmarried? mental health?) and to be realistic that in a number of circumstances women are still pressured into having abortions they don’t want to have”

Tbh that aspect has nothing to do with abortion. You want more women to keep their pregnancies? Make it easier for them to do so with wide reaching statism and social provsion. But it is NEVER going to happen in Britain, we’re just not that socialist a country.

” this is particularly the case with pregnant adolescents who typically present much further along their pregnancy than older women.”

in fact the majority of abortions take place in age group of 19-24 not adolescents. The majority of teenage girls I have come across especially in the lower socio-economic groups tend to keep their pregnancies (and therefore severely limit their life chances), this is ancedotal, but I believe there is empirical evidence to support this. Again we need to de-stigmatise teenage pregnancy and provide much better childcare and education opportunities to these women, but it just ain’t happening (and its funny but Dorries isn’t suggesting any of the above to combat the rise in abortions, which you think she might, considering she believes embryonic life to be so sacred).

I totally second Sarah’s comments, this is purely about denying women fulll autonomy over their reproductive system and prima facie punishing them for being female.

Cruella // Posted 5 July 2008 at 3:28 pm

No amount of doctor’s visits is going to ensure that women have the financial support of the state if they decide to continue with a pregnancy. There is no doubt that offering proper benefits to single mothers and not trying to force them back into full time work at the earliest opportunity would do a lot more to cut the abortion rate than simply inconveniencing women seeking a termination.

Also of course note that women who realise late that they’re pregnant then have a shorter amount of time and more doctors to get round before they can get an abortion – so that’s not very helpful…

Anna // Posted 5 July 2008 at 4:54 pm

‘I’d also make the morning after pill available to buy over the counter’ – it is, isn’t it? At the absolutely ridiculous price of thirty quid..

Shea // Posted 5 July 2008 at 5:19 pm

I meant without asking for it from the pharmacist. What would be sensible would be for women to be able to hold a supply at home rather than taking the chance they can find a pharmacy the next day. I also agree thirty four quid is ridiculous.

Anna // Posted 5 July 2008 at 5:50 pm

aah, absolutely – when I tried to obtain one as a prophylactic [is that the right word? I have no idea] since I was about to have sex with my partner and neither of us had the faintest idea how to use condoms properly [oh, the joys of no sex ed!] I was forced to take it on the spot.. rendering it entirely useless. idiots. the fact a pharmacist can refuse to dispense it on religious grounds is also a massive problem..

Torygirl // Posted 5 July 2008 at 7:43 pm

Shea… and why do you think it is that the majority of terminations don’t take place among adolescents?

Young (and older) women can and do get pressured into terminating maybe not completely unwanted pregnancies.

It may be about denying women control but the three doctors which would be necessary to authorise a termination over halfway through the pregnancy, by which time, incidentally, most women will have been feeling their babies moving for about a month, could act to prevent women being backed into a corner re terminating pregnancy.

The argument that teenagers limit their life chances by keeping their babies is not that sound. Many who chose to do so don’t have such great life chances in the first place and have little to deter them from taking this course. In fact, there is a good argument to be had that a significant proportion actually improve their life chances after having a baby.

I realise that is making me sound like a rabid pro-lifer, which I’m not. I simply don’t think it’s as black and white as all that.

And, incidentally, having studied teenage pregnancy and birth for years, been a teenage mother, been a recipient of state benefits and having worked with teenage parents and pregnant teenagers, I am not making random assertions based on prejudice.

And as I’ve already said, I’d anticipate that the number of late terminations in very small in the first place.

Shea // Posted 5 July 2008 at 9:21 pm

@ Torygirl

“Shea… and why do you think it is that the majority of terminations don’t take place among adolescents?”

Because they don’t- statistics prove that (as far as any stats can). Probably because adolescents are more impressionable (I know that a huge generalisation- I’m sorry) and therefore fall prey to pro-life rhetoric or don’t fully comprehend the impact having a child will have. Undoubtedly there are teenagers who have a poor start to begin with and therefore the effect of having a child young is negligible. But in terms of getting a career together having a child in your teens is normally a disadvantage.

I am also not talking from a standpoint of ignorance, I’m a medic and have had to counsel both women seeking first and second trimester abortions. Teenagers often make great mothers, better than those who have children older, but I can’t help but feel sad at the talent and intelligence of these women which will invariably be squandered. Thats the fault & failing of our society but its a failing nonetheless.

shatterboxx // Posted 6 July 2008 at 12:22 pm

You can get the morning after pill free from certain pharmacies. I do resent the interrogation process you have to go through before getting it though. I had to talk to the pharmacist on a busy saturday within earshot of many customers. I didn’t have to give my name and date of birth but it seemed like it was frowned upon that I chose not to disclose that information…

fenris // Posted 6 July 2008 at 3:29 pm

i highly resent the morning after pill interrogation too. they are supposed to take you into a private room to discuss it but i was asked over the counter, in front of everyone in the (tiny, village) pharmacy, exactly when i last had intercourse.

at least i was able to obtain the pill there though. many pharmacies have ‘moral objections’. i’m not sure what they would rather have happen… would they like me to have an actual abortion later instead?

Sarah // Posted 7 July 2008 at 8:27 am

Torygirl – I agree that it’s wrong for women to be pressured to have a termination if that’s not what they really want – I don’t know how often that happens, and would suspect that the reverse situation is more common – but yes of course it’s wrong. But I don’t see how requiring the authorisation of three doctors would have any effect on this at all. If it could be shown to be helpful or necessary, we could have the *option* of consulting two or more doctors before making a decision, but really most of us have that option already. Most GP surgeries, for example, have several doctors (and nurses), and you can ask for an appointment with whichever of them you wish. However making it compulsory is a completely different thing – wasting doctor’s time on paperwork and appointments that are neither needed nor wanted by the patient, and just another obstacle to access.

It’s a bit like the proposal for compulsory counselling sessions for women seeking abortions. It would be an excellent thing for counselling to be available for every woman who wants/needs it, however forcing it on everyone is a huge waste of already scarce resources, and insulting and patronising to the woman in question.

Kristy // Posted 7 July 2008 at 10:23 am


I would also add family pressure to the number of adolescents not aborting, especially if coming from a conservative family! I have found that mothers of teen girls can be very good at finding out their daughter is pregnant before the daughter realises, which means it then turns into a whole family affair

Matthew // Posted 11 July 2008 at 12:31 am

“The date for the Report Stage and Third Reading of the Bill have also now been set for 14 July” the Guardian

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