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This Tory Abortion Circus Must Not Shift the Spotlight From the Growing Difficulties Facing British Women

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Just as night follows day, one defeated anti-choice campaign has been replaced by a fresh attempt to chip away at British women's right to choose. One and a half years after I first vowed to oppose plans for anti-choice abortion counselling, and one year after the plans were heavily defeated in parliament, the government has finally conceded defeat on the issue. Health minister Anna Soubry announced that the government had caved in on the issue of anti-choice abortion counselling, during a debate on reducing the upper limit.

Everyone can agree on the desirability of having fewer abortions. But most abortions are the result of unintended pregnancy. So the way to bring down the abortion rate is to improve to access to contraceptive services and invest in comprehensive, age-appropriate sex and relationships education (SRE) in the national curriculum. This is certainly the view of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and other medical professionals. Instead, the opponents of a woman's right to choose denigrate medical professionals involved in women's reproductive rights issues and are silent on the harassment and intimidation of ordinary women by anti-abortion protests and vigils outside clinics. And the Tory religious right have already given notice of their plan to push on with a campaign to bring down abortion time limits. With so many other pressing social and economic issues facing British women and families, sections of the Tory right are choosing to pour their energies into having a vote on the issue of abortion time limits in the House of Commons by the summer of next year.

It cannot be repeated enough that there has been no new medical evidence to suggest any scientific or medical reason for a reduction in the abortion time limit since this was last debated in the House of Commons in May 2008. This debate isn't being reopened because of any new medical evidence or the current figures on abortion, but because of a toxic, politicisation of the issue by elements within the Conservative Party. It is happening because Jeremy Hunt's gratuitous attack on British women's right to choose has opened the door to parts of the Tory party to begin unwanted and distracting wrangling in parliament to reduce the time limits.

The problem, which many anti-choice campaigners seem hesitant to engage with, is that we're not talking about faceless women here. Real women's lives are at stake. An anonymised case-study audit of abortion requests by BPAS has highlighted some of the examples of the women who have put themselves forward for later abortion. One woman who had an abortion at 22 weeks had two young children. The pregnancy was unplanned but her current partner had persuaded her to continue. She then found out that he was abusing her children and reported him to the police.

Another young women had an abortion at 23 weeks. It was an unplanned pregnancy. She was going to keep the baby. However, she and her partner have just been served with an eviction notice and they have nowhere to live that would be suitable for a baby.

One girl, who had an abortion at 23 weeks, had had sex for the first time to see what it was like. She thought she might be pregnant but "buried [her] head in the sand hoping it would go away". She started to self-harm: punching herself in the stomach and making herself vomit. Her mother took her to GP suspecting bulimia and the pregnancy was detected.

Another younger girl had an abortion at 23 weeks because she felt too young to have a baby. She started her periods a year ago, but they had never been regular, so it didn't register with her that she could be pregnant. She had no idea where she could get help and didn't feel able to tell her parents. Eventually she "plucked up her courage" to see the school nurse.

These are the issues that risk being swept away. British public policy making does 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.

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