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Abortion: From Maria Miller To Nadine Dorries, Is This Issue Back In The Political Eye In 2012?

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It’s been a great year for the pro-life lobby.

That’s the view of Mark Bhagwandin, Senior Education and Media Officer of anti-abortion charity LIFE, which advises the government on sexual health.

"There's been a greater level of debate in public over the last year,” he tells The Huffington Post UK. “In terms of politics, I think the political establishment responded to what I feel is the will of the people. There is, indeed, public support for a review of abortion laws as they are."

We’re looking back on a year where, in the words of Ann Furedi, chief executive of Britain’s biggest abortion providers, Bpas, there has been "more political scrutiny [of abortion] than in the previous 10."

For her, it’s almost surprising the issue was uncontroversial for so long: “This year has been particularly interesting because it really does seem to be the case that certain politicians have wanted to put more abortion in the spotlight.”

She’s referring not just to events in the last few months, when the new minister for women, Maria Miller, backed lowering the abortion time limit to 20 weeks, only to be followed up by Jeremy Hunt backing a 12 week limit, but to raids on clinics by the care quality commission, ordered by Hunt’s predecessor as health secretary, Andrew Lansley, in March 2012.

abortion 2012

Abortion has been in the spotlight in 2012

Lansley’s raids were in response to an undercover investigation by The Telegraph which found one in five doctors could be breaking the law by pre-signing abortion forms. They cost around £1m and resulted in the Care Quality Commission cutting the number of inspections of hospitals and care homes as a result. In July, it was quietly announced that just 14 out of 249 providers had ignored the rules.

Then there were the prayer vigils outside clinics by 40 days for life, protests at universities around the country by anti-choice group Abort 67, who favour graphic images of aborted fetuses, as well as Nadine Dorries choosing to go on ITV’s I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here to advance her campaign to reduce the abortion time limits to 20 weeks on the airwaves (a venture halted by OFCOM rules).

It was in this heightened climate Marie Stopes chose to open the first abortion clinic in Northern Ireland in October - despite abortion being, technically, illegal in Northern Ireland, except in exceptional circumstances. The debate in mainland Ireland has also intensified after the death of Savita Halappanavar, who died after being refused access to a termination.

Back in Britain, the pro-choice side is fighting against attempts to politicise abortion, with Diane Abbott writing in a blog for The Huffington Post UK, shortly after the government announced it would not press forwards with plans for independent councillors in abortion clinics, that British policy making did not need "the hysterical politicised debate in the United States."

"There, doctors are threatened with violence and male politicians compete with each other arguing against ordinary women's right to choose. Choosing to undergo an abortion can be one of the most difficult and emotional decisions any woman can make. But the key thing is that it should be her choice. The issue must not be made a political football," she cautioned.

in the spotlight

Both health secretary Jeremy Hunt and women's minister Maria Miller have spoken out on reducing the abortion time limit

For Furedi, she believes the government, lacking in a "particular clear direction as to how it's running the country on a number of big picture issues" have been giving attention to abortion as a "ploy to appease their backbenchers."

"There have been a certain number of politicians - one of them who’s just come back from the jungle - who clearly have decided to make an issue of this, regardless of the fact there’s no objective reason to why it should be raised as an issue at this time.

"There’s sort of a sense that the more people raise this issue, they create a sense that something needs to be addressed.

"We can all be fairly clear that when we say there’s no new evidence or any reason why the abortion time limit should be reduced, but there’s every reason why we should continue to have the law that we do, it has absolutely no purchase with them because they’re driving their own self-publicity agenda."

But is it working? One big test of 2013 will be if the abortion limit is reduced to 20 weeks from 24 - despite medical evidence not showing there is a need to do so.

Dorries announced in October, before she departed for the jungle, she was planning to apply for a debate on the issue in 2013 "to give pro-choice and pro-life to prepare theirs stalls."

Bhagwandin points out YouGov research that shows "more women the men wanted greater restrictions on abortion and more women than men supported a reduction on the time limit from 24 weeks."

"What we have seen this year has challenged the belief that the laws should not be questioned," he says.

"We have public support for a review of the abortion laws in this country. We've had many years of seeming acceptance of the status quo. I think it's time for people to question that status quo... When 2012 is finished you will still see the debate continuing."

QUOTES OF THE YEAR: THE ABORTION DEBATE

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