Almost 50 years on from the 1967 Abortion Act, Dr Adele Pilkington reviews the grim realities of what has become a consumer industry…
On 27th October 1967, in a half-empty House of Commons, Parliament voted to decriminalise abortion. Since 1967 more than 8.4 million unborn babies have been ‘legally’ killed in the UK, equivalent to the combined population of Scotland and Wales. Since abortion was first legalised in the former Soviet Union in 1920, there have been over one billion babies killed worldwide1.
The Abortion Act does not currently apply in Northern Ireland, although the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) and British Humanist Association are determined to change this, and could be assisted by the recent change in power sharing within the devolved legislature of Northern Ireland.2
Based on Department of Health (DH) statistics for 2015, 185,824 abortions (over 550 each day) were carried out in England and Wales.3 The highest numbers in 5 years are increasingly driven by women in their 30s and 40s. About 70% were married or in stable long-term relationships and over 50% were mothers who already had children, rates in this group having increased 13% over a decade. 38% of the women had had multiple abortions, with 50 women having had eight abortions each. Despite assurances in 1967 that the Act would not result in abortion on demand 98% are carried out for ‘social’ and not medical reasons. UK 1965 abortion data indicates 10% of the numbers reported in 2015.
Over the last 5 years there has been a 117% increase in abortions carried out after 24 weeks of pregnancy on grounds of disability, including a trebling for babies with minor facial deformity. In 2015, 689 babies (92%) diagnosed prenatally with Down’s syndrome were aborted and numbers are expected to increase with the introduction of Non-Invasive Prenatal Testing. In 2016 Lord Shinkwin, who is himself disabled, tabled the Abortion (Disability Equality) Bill seeking to have all abortions banned after 24 weeks. It reached the report stage in the House of Lords but will not progress any further. During the debate he asked “What message does it send if, after birth, I’m good enough for the House of Lords but, before birth, I’m only good enough for the incinerator” .4
In all other cases abortion is currently legal up to 24 weeks from conception, despite the fact that neonatal intensive care has resulted in babies born earlier than this having increased survival rates.5 Under the Act an abortion should only be performed by a ‘registered medical practitioner’ and only when two doctors have agreed ‘in good faith’ that specific conditions are met. It is implicit in the Act that the doctors meet with the woman to make an assessment, but guidance issued for abortion providers by the DH in May 2014 suggests doctors can reach an opinion by reviewing relevant paperwork or speaking to other health professionals. This has led to widespread illegal pre-signing of forms which facilitates illegal sex-selective abortions.
Although about 40% of abortions involve a surgical vacuum aspiration usually performed by a doctor, over 55% are now carried out medically using a pill (RU486). The proportion of medical abortions has trebled in the last 10 years, resulting in increased abortions in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, supervised by nursing or other health support staff, and where women are often left unsupported to complete the process at home. 68% of abortions are now carried out in the independent sector by groups such as the BPAS and Marie Stopes International under tax-payer funded NHS contract. Such groups have no commercial interest in promoting prolife initiatives or providing information for women on the potential consequences of abortion. The CEO of BPAS claimed in February 2017 that women should be able to buy abortion pills online.6 In 2016 the Care Quality Commission had to intervene to protect patients from potential harm at Marie Stopes abortion clinics where it was found doctors had been bulk-signing abortion consent forms, babies remains had been left in open bins, staff were not trained in how to respond to deteriorating patients and post-surgery safety checks were being completed before surgery had taken place.7
Proponents of abortion have also relied on misleading information suggesting that the aborted baby does not feel pain in early abortions, although a recent study suggests that preborn babies feel pain possibly as early as five weeks of preganancy.8The largest ever scientific review of the health effects of abortion conducted in 2011, considered evidence from over 850,000 women and concluded that abortions increase the risk of developing mental health problems by 81%.9 The results also indicated that abortion increased anxiety disorders by 34%, depression by 37%, alcohol abuse by 110% and self-harm behaviours by 155%. A prior study in 2010 highlighted symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) reported by 52% of women who had had early abortions and 67% of women who had late term abortions.10 Almost two-thirds of the women taking part in the study reported that “a part of me died” after their abortion, a sentiment commonly posted by women on internet sites following medical and surgical abortion. CARE’s ‘Open’ programme seeks to address these concerns with support and compassion.11 Physical risks of abortion for women include haemorrhage, and damage to womb or cervix. Womb infection due to incomplete removal of the products of conception can lead to infertility or increased risk of ectopic pregnancy. Repeated surgical abortion can also increase the risk of late miscarriages in subsequent pregnancies.
In 2013, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) concluded it was not in the public interest to punish doctors in 14 NHS Trusts involved in pre-signing abortion certificates for patients they had never met,12 a practice linked to sex-selective abortions of baby girls. The CPS concluded that it was possible that the doctors had come to a ‘good-faith opinion’ by reviewing clinical information at some point between presigning a form and the abortion taking place. It acknowledged the practice was ‘clearly widespread’ but could be due to ‘clinical pressures’ or ‘good intention’ . The CPS also took no further action against two doctors who had authorised genderselective abortions in the UK in 2012. However, Aisling Hubert, a Christian who attempted to bring a private prosecution against the doctors, had huge costs awarded against her after the CPS dropped the case.13 In several countries it is legal to abort a baby girl just for being a girl, resulting in 160 million missing females in China and India, and 28 countries have significant gender imbalances. In 2015 an attempt to clarify the illegality of sex-selective abortion in UK law was defeated in parliament by 292 votes to 201. In March 2017, Professor Wendy Savage a leading ethics expert at the British Medical Association controversially called for the law banning gender selective abortions to be scrapped.14
The right to life is a universal moral principle central to the concept of human rights. From the moment of conception the fertilized egg has full personhood and genetic makeup necessary for life outside the womb. Whilst most groups agree that life begins at conception, personhood continues to be much debated and has restricted the rights of the unborn baby compared to the pregnant woman. The Bible makes it clear that human beings are known to God even before conception. In Jeremiah 1:5 God says, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.’ There is continuity of life before and after birth, and thus continuity of personhood. As a bearer of God’s image each human being has intrinsic value, and all are equally precious in God’s sight. Psalm 139:16 also indicates that God knew us before we were formed and had a plan and purpose for our lives and allotted a lifespan. Psalm 139 confirms that the unborn baby is created by God, known and loved by Him, and this state of dependence on God in the womb mirrors our need to depend on Him completely throughout the lives He has granted to us. What a blessing to know our needs will be met by His grace, and we can never escape His presence or be separated from His love.
Jesus taught the two greatest commandments were to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbour as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:36-40). Jesus is our help and example (John 13:34) as we look to other’s needs (Galatians 6:2). The 6th commandment (Exodus 20:13) prohibits the taking of human life with few exceptions, reflecting the value our Creator places on each human being. In an increasing secular-humanist culture less emphasis is placed on God’s Word and more on the self-absorbed spirit of the age. An abortion ‘on demand’ philosophy limits the likelihood of women considering alternative options and restricts freedom of conscience for those who work in women’s health care and who uphold a biblical perspective on the sanctity of life.
In 2016, the CEO of the Royal College of Midwives (Cathy Warwick) said that the BPAS ‘We Trust Women’ Campaign, which advocates decriminalising abortion up until birth, had the College’s ‘full support’ .15 This backing was given without consulting the 30,000 midwives who belong to the RCM. Cathy Warwick has since announced that she will step down from the CEO role and retire in August 2017.16 In April 2017, a Swedish court ruled against a Christian midwife in a dispute over her refusal to carry out abortions based on freedom of conscience.17 Two Glasgow midwives recently sought to clarify the scope of conscientious objection under the 1967 Abortion Act. In December 2014 Lady Hale, the Vice President of the Supreme Court, narrowed the scope of the conscience clause to apply only to staff directly involved in abortion provision, thus restricting the right of conscience for other health care staff. A parliamentary report ‘Freedom of Conscience in Abortion Provision’ , published in July 2016 highlighted ‘widespread and increasing pressure’ on healthcare professionals to participate in abortions ‘in large part due to inadequate observance of the current legislation’ .18 Section 4 of the Abortion Act, commonly known as the ‘Conscience Clause’ , was intended to enable individuals with conscientious objections to be able to provide healthcare without being compelled to participate in the provision of abortion. The report makes practical recommendations including a review of the training of healthcare students, and urges the principle of ‘reasonable accommodation’ to be introduced into UK legislation.
As we reach a sobering milestone in 2017, it is imperative that we uphold the sanctity of all human life, support those who seek to do so in whatever field of service, and as a nation seek God’s forgiveness for the loss of such human potential over the last 50 years, whilst compassionately supporting those who live with the consequences of decisions which they may subsequently regret.