Hunt's Abortion Statements Are About Politics, Not Medicine

06/10/2012 12:39 BST | Updated 06/12/2012 10:12 GMT

It is worth contemplating why senior Tory politicians are queuing up to attack women's reproductive rights. First there was equalities minister Maria Miller, then Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt, now Home Secretary Theresa May.

Their opinions on the time limits for abortions obviously have no basis in medical fact. The people best placed to know whether there is any scientific case for lowering time limits are doctors, specifically doctors that specialise in women and childbirth. But their representative body, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, has dismissed the need for lowering time limits out of hand. They argue that there is little sustainable evidence that the survival rates for babies born under 24 weeks have improved in any meaningful way. So there is no medical basis for what these Tories are saying.

We can also dismiss any notion that the Tory politicians, wading into the debate about abortion time limits, are concerned about the life chances of the unborn children. If the Coalition really cared about the life chances of children, unborn or otherwise, they would not be pursuing their current economic policies and welfare cuts. Whether it is cuts in support for breast feeding or slashing the Sure Start program, Coalition policy will make the lives of women and children that much harder.

The timing is the clue. Miller, Hunt, May et al have all chosen to talk about women's reproductive rights on the eve of Tory Party conference. This is about politics not medicine. These statements are a deliberate attempt to appeal to that wing of the Tory right which is obsessed with rolling back women's rights over their own bodies.

Those Tory right wingers like the idea of lowering time limits, because they believe it will bring down the number of abortions. Anti-abortion dogmatists know they can't win a straight fight on a woman's right to choose. So they are choosing to constrain women's rights by a "salami slicing" approach. Whether it is insisting on extra counselling for women seeking abortion (women already get counselling as a matter of course) or bringing down time limits, the idea is to gradually circumscribe women's rights. The Tory Christian right in parliament is persistent and well funded.

They represent a voting bloc that no ambitious Tory minister can afford to ignore. It will not have escaped Jeremy Hunt's attention that by appealing to his own right-wing on an issue like abortion, it buttresses his still shaky position. Despite Cameron's gesture of faith in him by making him health secretary at all, Hunt still needs all the friends he can get. Who knows what Leveson may bring. Hunt must realise that he cannot, in practise, bring the time limit down to 12 weeks. But he must calculate that it all creates pressure to bring down time limits at least as far as 20. He must also know the kudos it will bring him in right wing Tory circles by being seen to lead that fight.

Women's reproductive rights present a range of issues that need to be dealt with calmly, objectively and on the basis of the available medical evidence. Instead leading Tories are jumping into the debate on the basis of their own subjective views. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) has called the Health Secretary's intervention 'insulting to women'. It is more than that.

Leading Tory politicians are intervening in a difficult issue, with no regard for medical opinion, for the crudest of political motives. Britain does not need a toxic American-style politicised debate on abortion with politicians trying to outdo each other in appeals to the religious right. Women deserve better. "