Science and social choices

The threat to abortion rights in Britain appears to have least temporarily abated. Despite rumours to the contrary, the December private members ballot in the House of Commons did not produce any bill aimed at cutting the time limit for late-term abortion. It has also become clear that the government does not plan to introduce any changes in the run-up to the election. But we should not be fooled into thinking that the struggle is over. It is especially important to continue the arguments in the face of campaigning by the rightwing press. The Pro-Choice Forum, a campaign largely run by Ellie Lee, lecturer in social policy at the University of Kent, has recently compiled a briefing - Late abortion: a review of the evidence (see www.proch-oiceforum.org.uk). The aim is to help "reasoned conclusions to be drawn in this difficult and challenging debate" by providing "research-based evidence and statistical information to assist with the consideration of issues around late abortion". The publication of the briefing was followed by a meeting on January 27 in the Commons, chaired by Ian Gibson MP and supported by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) and numerous academics and doctors. The attempt to tackle some of the myths created by the pro-life lobby is to be welcomed. Likewise the effort to address and organise progressive-minded members of the medical profession, like Doctors for a Woman's Choice. The influence of Spiked, a left-libertarian website and contemporary manifestation of the former Revolutionary Communist Party, was palpable among some of the main contributors at the Commons meeting. Unsurprisingly, given Spiked's idealistic politics and aims, the question of class was missing. Despite that the debate was worthwhile and the briefing should be studied. The first speaker, Rodney Rivers from the Imperial College faculty of medicine, addressed the question of foetal viability. One of the arguments against late abortion has been that recent medical developments allow for extremely premature babies to survive and grow into healthy children. Therefore, the argument goes, by allowing abortions after 12 weeks, you are in fact killing a baby which would be able to survive outside the womb with the correct medical care. Dr Rivers showed that this was complete fabrication on the part of the pro-life lobby. He provided statistics which showed that infants born in Britain before 21 weeks have in fact got a 0% chance of survival. Also, although survival between 24-28 weeks has improved, only 15% actually end up being discharged from hospital and the majority will be disabled. The second speaker, Stuart Derbyshire, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, focused on the recent claims that foetuses can cry, walk and smile from 15 weeks onwards. Images have been broadcast in various BBC documentaries that appear to support that contention. The pro-life lobby have seized on these images as yet more evidence that the foetus is aware emotionally and cognitively - and can feel both emotional and physical pain when an abortion is carried out. The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (Spuc) in particular has plastered the images all over its website. Derbyshire argued strongly against this proposition. He asserted that the foetus is not aware, but reactive. Although the nervous system does develop enormously during the period of gestation, observations of movement within the womb do not tell us anything about foetal experience. In contrast "the intense tactile stimulation of birth triggers behavioural activity and wakefulness and marks the transition from laying down brain tissue to also organising that tissue with regards to the world now rudely thrust upon it". Therefore with birth the foetus becomes a social being - and begins to learn how to interact with the world. Pain has a "social meaning - this allows diagnosis of medical complaints from the description given of the pain". A foetus in the womb has spinal reflex actions that are not dependent on brain activity and we should not give social content to these reflexes. Clearly "abortion is a social question that needs to be decided at the level of society, not science"; and science is of course by no means neutral. Some of the audience reacted with concern to his analysis. One academic argued that "of course a foetus can feel pain. Animals feel pain - everybody knows that. So why not a foetus?" She believed that, "as we do not have any direct evidence, we should assume that they feel pain". Another was concerned that Derbyshire's analysis would lead to a situation where pain relief would not be applied to the foetus in late abortions. However, Wendy Savage of Doctors for Choice argued that the issue of foetal sentience is a red herring that has been used politically to agitate against the provision of late abortions. She stressed that of course sedatives and pain relief should be used so that the abortion procedure is not distressing or unsafe. But the issue is one of rights and the current practice of ascribing social qualities to a foetus means that women are denied their right to choose. Ann Furedi, chief executive of BPAS and supporter of Spiked, spoke from the platform about the social reality of abortion for the women who come to BPAS for help. She described the many and varied reasons behind the requests for assistance. They range from lack of awareness of pregnancy - especially common with teenagers or older menopausal women - through to changes in a woman's life, which mean she feels she can no longer go through with the pregnancy, as well as foetal abnormality. Her argument was that legislating for more accessible early abortion would not lessen the need for late abortion. However, she also argued against any change in the law at the present time, as she believed that in the current climate it would inevitably have negative results for those seeking late abortions. Instead she wanted to see "a shift in public awareness and opinion". But the present legislative situation cannot be defended. Women have to go abroad for abortions after 24 weeks and in some cases even sooner. It has become extremely difficult to get an NHS abortion after 18 weeks and in some parts of the country impossible. Furedi's own experience illustrates well the problems. BPAS has been targeted by The Sunday Telegraph and some Conservative MPs for advising women of services abroad. And, while it is true that making abortion illegal does not stop it happening, it certainly makes it more dangerous and difficult. The current legal restrictions may not be as bad as some MPs would wish for, but they nevertheless stop some women from exercising their right to choose. The meeting concluded with other speakers on medical procedures and antenatal screening for abnormalities leading to late abortions. Again, the aim was to discredit the myths and introduce some reality into the debate. This is a debate that must be widened beyond the circles of health professionals and academics. It must be taken to the left and to working class organisations. The pro-life lobby are well able to popularise their own so-called medical findings. We need to win our class to take a political stance for a woman's right to choose - therefore they need to be educated so that they can deal with these often difficult medical and ethical questions. It is not the enlightened ranks of academia that will change the world. Anne Mc Shane