A British parliamentary committee is just concluding an inquiry into scientific developments relating to abortion since its legalisation in this country exactly forty years ago. The inquiry should have reflected the widespread opinion in Britain that the normal upper limit of 24 weeks for legal abortion is too high, if for no other reason than that premature babies can now be saved at younger gestations.
Instead, the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee has done everything in its power to discredit this opinion and evidence in favour of it. It is one of the most disgraceful exercises of its kind ever undertaken, and the only consolation for those of us whose hopes for a fair hearing have been dashed is that this “consultation” is most likely the committee’s swan song. It will be disbanded at the end of October in a cost-cutting exercise and, no doubt, will soon be forgotten. Hopefully, our opprobrium will not.
From the pro-choice lobby the committee invited 13 representatives to
attend oral evidence sessions. Only two witnesses were chosen from
those who had submitted written evidence and were known to be pro-life.
Millions of deaths, methodically recorded
Some history is required. The Abortion Act of the United Kingdom was voted through on October 27, 1967 and implemented the following April. Termination of pregnancy is permitted provided it is performed by a registered practitioner and subject to certain conditions, including the signed approval of two doctors on specific grounds relating either to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman, or the physical or mental health of the baby.
Since then, as has happened in most countries in the world regardless of whether abortion is more or less legal, abortion figures continue to rise. On a worldwide scale it is impossible to count the millions and millions of unborn lives that have been terminated to date, but in the UK these unpalatable statistics have been kept most methodically and the number will reach 6.7 million by this fortieth anniversary. Most will have been performed in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and, notwithstanding the various requirements under the Act, will have been easily obtained on grounds which can primarily be described as social.
Changes were made to the Abortion Act under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990. Most significantly at that time an upper limit for abortion was established at 24 weeks gestation, and while this was a small victory for the pro-life movement, it was not all good news. A provision remained in the Act to allow abortion up to birth where there was risk of severe handicap to the developing child. Abortions could also be performed up to birth if the mother’s life were in danger or if there was likelihood of permanent injury to her physical or mental health.
The provision for abortion up to birth for disability caused great heartache to the pro-lifers who campaigned at the time of the HFE Act. Some argue to this day that the situation has been made worse; others rightly claim that every time the upper limit comes down a considerable number of lives are saved, that these incremental victories are to be cherished, and should continue to inspire us to be courageous.
Abortion is now back on the agenda in Great Britain thanks to a reform of the HFE Act of 1990, which is in the preliminary stages. Although the glamour issues of IVF and embryo research threatened to dominate the review, our legal advice indicated that abortion could not be excluded from the Act, and we formed an alliance of major pro-life groups in the UK to monitor parliamentary movements in this field. The campaign group is called Alive & Kicking and is very much in the thick of the debate. Comment On Reproductive Ethics, the group I represent, is a member.
Committee of inquiry: humbug from day one
As it happens, abortion did not get written off the agenda, despite the efforts of those in power, and we were delighted to read in the documentation of the Joint Committee on the Human Tissue and Embryos (Draft) Bill that “amendments relating to termination of pregnancy (abortion) would in principle be orderly”.
It was at that time also that the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee announced their inquiry into scientific development relating to the Abortion Act 1967.
To our frustration, it was humbug right from day one. Only scientific and medical evidence would be heard and the committee would “not be looking at the ethical or moral issues associated with abortion time limits”. Even the more generic “social” issues which were part of their original recommendation were excluded.
The twelve-man committee at the time was very much that, with only one token female representative and another co-opted at the last minute. In the event only the latter, the feisty Conservative, Nadine Dorries, attended meetings. The Liberal Democrat MP, Evan Harris, already famous for his enthusiasm for fatherless families, animal-human hybrids, and such like, dominated the proceedings.
Written evidence submitted to the committee was limited but, at least in the case of pro-life contributions, mostly of the highest standard. There was an even balance with exactly 25 pro-life and 25 pro-choice submissions, from which a small number of contributors were selected to give oral evidence, as usually happens in these exercises of public consultation.
At this moment, however, the blatant distortion of the inquiry began in earnest. There was no longer even a semblance of balance, let alone neutrality.
One-sided scrutiny of ‘interests’
From the pro-choice lobby the committee invited 13 representatives to attend oral evidence sessions. Only two witnesses were chosen from those who had submitted written evidence and were known to be pro-life — a representative of Alive & Kicking and one other pediatric specialist, Chris Richards, who had not been already identified as either a Christian or a pro-lifer.
After extensive and difficult negotiations with the committee, two other leading medical specialists were also invited to give evidence, one a consultant neonatologist, Prof John Wyatt, and the other a consultant in psychiatry, Prof Patricia Casey. Both were both subsequently “outed” as being pro-life. They were subjected to questioning that should more correctly be described as interrogation, aimed, wherever possible, at discrediting their medical evidence. All five pro-life witnesses conducted themselves superbly.
The Guardian newspaper, tipped off no doubt by Evan Harris, wrote a childish but pernicious article suggesting all manner of conspiracy and subterfuge on the part of these witnesses, based on either their religious or pro-life commitment or both. The Clerk of the Committee promptly issued instructions to everybody who had given written evidence to the inquiry to declare their interests and membership of groups, with a view to winkling out more of these devious pro-life Christians. It is a safe bet they would not have dared to do so with any other religious group.
Nobody from the other side – and remember, they outnumbered our witnesses by two to one – was asked overtly about their pro-choice leanings and never was it suggested that being pro-choice might compromise their objectivity. The pro-abortion medical professionals gave their evidence unchallenged, while sociologists such as Dr Ellie Lee, from the aggressively pro-choice Research Centre for Law, Gender and Sexuality, were accorded a courtesy well beyond their academic merits. Their witnesses included many signed-up members of a political campaign called Voice for Choice, and all the known groups who fight for abortion rights were amply represented: British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas), Marie Stopes International, the Family Planning Association and, of course, the British Medical Association Ethics Group, of which Evan Harris is a member.
Were it not for the courage of Nadine Dorries and her fellow Tory, Bob Spink, these witnesses would have had a very easy ride indeed.
Birth professionals line up with abortionists
Perhaps the most shameful appearance in this farce was that of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecology, which long ago gave up its protection of the unborn child and usually hosts the bpas annual conference — to ensure that we are all up to date on the best protocols for state of the art abortion.
Developments this week, however, suggest that the RCOG might get some extremely welcome come-uppance. They have issued a press release against a TV programme which went out on Channel 4 on October 17, looking at the current state of fetal medicine in relationship to abortion and the issue of fetal pain. The programme referred in some detail to the work of Prof K J S Anand, Professor of Pediatrics, Anaethesiology and Neurobiology at the University of Arkansas. Prof Anand is a well-known expert in fetal pain, highly esteemed for his work in this field, and his research indicates that the fetus can feel pain at 18-20 weeks gestation, considerably earlier than the RCOG acknowledges.
Not only did he appear in the TV programme but many of our witnesses quoted his work in their written submissions.
The RCOG refers to him in their press release only as “Dr” Anand and states that they are unaware of his work. On the basis of their appalling ignorance, they reject references to the claims he makes and presumably feel they have thereby discredited anybody who has cited his work. A quick Google search will acquaint anyone who wishes to know with the academic status of Prof Anand.
The discounting of his research is one more valid reason to discredit the House of Commons Science and Technology inquiry into Scientific Developments relating to the Abortion Act 1967 — a stitch-up by the pro-choice lobby if ever there was one.
Josephine Quintavalle is the director of CORE (Comment on Reproductive Ethics), a non-profit organisation in the UK which focuses on the controversial issues associated with human reproduction. The group was founded in 1994 and is a key contributor to ethical debate at national and international level.