The undercover investigation by The Daily Telegraph which confirmed that abortions take place in the UK on the basis of gender alone was no surprise to those of us who have been campaigning for abortion law reform.
Abortion on the basis of sex selection is illegal. In fact abortion for any reason other than ‘continuation of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children in her family’* is illegal.
When agreeing to an abortion two doctors have to sign a statutory document to comply with the wording of the Act, ‘in good faith’. Some would argue that on that basis, almost every abortion which takes place in the UK is illegal. Do doctors really believe ‘in good faith’ that every abortion they carry out meets the criteria of the Act and more importantly, complete statutory documents to that effect?
The reality is, as evidenced by a former director of BPAS, Dr Vincent Argent (who gave evidence to a select committee investigating abortion on which I sat) that the statutory forms stock pile up in an office for a second clinic doctor to sign, who may never even have see the woman. The clinics ‘stung’ by the Daily Telegraph are now under police investigation and on Monday afternoon I have a meeting with the Metropolitan Detective Inspector responsible for the investigation.
One of the UK's largest abortion providers, BPAS, narrowly avoided police intervention after a centre manager, at the last moment, realised that a doctor had readily and willingly agreed to terminate on the basis of gender. Maybe her suspicion had been aroused by the undercover reporters? Abortion providers have been very much on alert over the last few months since the debate on counselling.
The Secretary of State, Andrew Lansley, acted quickly and responsibly to the expose stating publicly that doctors will face the “full force of the law if they break the 1967 Abortion Act”. Lansley was referring to sex selection but his words are all encompassing and apply to the Act and the behavior of doctors as a whole.
When the expose broke and after the Police had been informed, the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, immediately wrote a letter to all independent sector abortion clinics and the managers of NHS trusts reminding them of their responsibilities under the Act. If I were a doctor who had or does perform abortions, the contents of the letter would chill me to the bone.
The letter states quite clearly that any doctor breaking the 1967 Act will be committing an offence under the Offenses Against the Persons Act 1861 – which could carry life time imprisonment.
Those who have knowingly or willfully falsified statutory documents (abortion authorisation documents) would be prosecuted for perjury. Almost certainly, the three doctors identified by The Daily Telegraph will face prosecution for perjury and will be struck off by the General Medical Council. As would any doctor who had ever signed a form without first seeing a patient.
Throughout Labour's time in office, the abortion act was regarded as a holy grail, indeed, any attempts to amend the Act by an MP met with vitriol and abuse not only from Labour party members, but from trade union-funded organisations such as Abortion Rights, the politically active left wing of the feminist movement and the Guardian Newspaper. I experienced the full force of this in 2008 when I attempted to reduce the upper limit at which abortion takes place from 24 weeks to 20 and subsequently, throughout my time processing the amendment on abortion counselling.
The Left has always sought to aggressively deter anyone from any attempt to reform the ‘67 Act. Over the years, this effective defence of a badly drafted piece of legislation, the inability to concede to debate, or enter into discussion about any provision within the Act may now result in doctors being struck off and disqualified from practicing medicine, or even being imprisoned.
This blind cleaving to an abortion conveyor belt policy has certainly harmed vulnerable women, particularly those with mild mental health issues – made far worse following an abortion for the sake of the greater number being able to freely access social termination.
The faux bubble of security that abortion doctors have been lured into by the last Labour Government has brought about a gradual errosion and blurring of the boundaries accompanied by an almost casual disregard for the law by the authorities. That is all about to change.
The investigation by the Daily Telegraph has caught the public mood. A Sky News live poll this week showed that 74% of the public feel that obtaining an abortion is ‘too easy’.
Shortly, the Government is to enter into public consultation regarding providing women seeking an abortion with an offer of counselling. The assumption is that those who are facing such a decision alone or in trauma will accept the offer. It’s about providing women with greater choice and help at a very difficult time. Should it be implemented, it will be a reform welcomed by women. However, the battle to get here has been hard and not without scars. Unlike Labour, this government is giving the public a say and everyone’s voice can be heard. The most powerful being those women who have been through the abortion process.
Hopefully the Telegraph investigation and the public attention it has attracted will accelerate the need to reform the Act in its entirety, to re-visit the upper time limit at which abortion takes place and to provide doctors with stronger safeguards and protection from prosecution. There is a compelling need for a much tighter regulatory framework and monitoring and inspection process to be put in place.
In the meantime, every doctor in the UK who carries out abortions today is in an extremely vulnerable position. The spotlight is full on abortion practice. It will be very difficult for any doctor to demonstrate that when aborting a baby because the mother is going on a ski-ing holiday that he or she is acting within the spirit, let alone the word of the law and can prove that he is completing statutory documentation in good faith and complying with the law. This may cause some to withdraw their services until the law fully protects them, which could result in some women with genuine reasons finding abortion much more difficult to obtain. They can thank the last short sighted Labour government for that.
*Abortion Act 1967. Further provisons within the Act cover disability, danger to life and grave injury.