Do politicians know the facts?

Observations on abortion

Abortion and general elections tend not to mix in the UK. Before each election, politicians discuss whether abortion should be an issue and then decide against it. It is a matter, they say, for the conscience of individual MPs. But this time, the Daily Mail says, "the taboo is broken". In the April edition of Cosmopolitan magazine, the party leaders give their personal views. Michael Howard says he wants to lower the time limit to 20 weeks. Tony Blair says he has "no plans" to change the law, though "the debate will continue". Charles Kennedy once voted for a time limit of 22 weeks but, given changes in technology, doesn't know "what I would do now".

Do these politicians know what they are talking about? In his Cosmo interview, Howard says: "I think what we have now is tantamount to abortion on demand." In fact, although women can get an abortion on the NHS up to 24 weeks into a pregnancy (usually for social reasons), the Abortion Act 1967 requires them to get the consent of two doctors. Some find this humiliating and insulting. If they want late abortions - after 20 weeks - many fail to get them. Last year I met a 21-year-old who, when 11 weeks pregnant, was told she had to travel across two counties and pay for transport and accommodation if she wanted a legal abortion. She is now in the late stages of pregnancy.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) estimates that one in every three women who call the service to talk about a late abortion fails to get a termination. Ann Furedi, chief executive of the BPAS, says it is a scandal they can't get access to perfectly legal services. Presumably, the 2,927 women in England and Wales who had an abortion at between 20 and 24 weeks in 2003 (about 1.6 per cent of total abortions) would have had babies they didn't want if Howard's idea had been law then.

Kennedy's argument that abortion should "go ahead sooner rather than later" at least has the merit of being medically correct. Early abortions are safer for women. In some cases, however, women do not discover they are pregnant until quite late. Teenage women may not know why their bodies are changing. Older women may have assumed their bodies were getting heavier with age.

Yet 1,756 out of the 2,927 women who had late abortions in 2003 did not fall into either category: they were aged between 20 and 34. Were they just being frivolous and irresponsible? A more common explanation is that they were overjoyed to become pregnant by their partners but were then smartly dumped. These women, through no fault of their own, would become single mothers if the time limit were lowered. The BPAS turns away about a hundred women a year because they are over the present 24-week limit. You could quite easily argue that the time limit should be raised for their benefit. No party proposes that.

When Kennedy refers to changes in "medical technology", he must be referring to the improved survival rates for premature babies. In fact, according to a study published in 2003, survival rates are 0 per cent for babies born at 21 weeks, rising to 11 per cent at 23 weeks. For those that survive at 24 weeks, the chances of long-term severe disability are 26 per cent.