24 reasons for 24 weeks

MP Nadine Dorries unveiled 20 'reasons' for lowering the abortion limit to 20 weeks. Here Laurie Penny gives 24 reasons why it should remain at 24 weeks

May 8, 2008
5 min read


Laurie PennyLaurie Penny is a freelance journalist who blogs regularly for the New Statesman.

1) There has been no improvement in the survival rates of infants born before the 24-week time limit during the past decade, according to the British Medical Association.

2) Last autumn, the Commons Science and Technology Committee of MPs found no medical basis for a change in the law.

3) Research shows that lowering the time limit does nothing to lower the number of abortions taking place.

4) There are many far better ways to reduce the number of late-term abortions. People who object to late-term abortions should be fighting to make early abortions easier to access and to increase the availability of proper sex education, and access to contraceptives.

5) No contraception is foolproof, and anyone can find themselves pregnant against their will; until foolproof contraception is available, legal pregnancy termination up to 24 weeks will remain necessary.

6) Some vulnerable women need late-term abortions because severe abnormalities in pregnancy, such as Edwards syndrome, are rarely identified until 20-21 weeks. Reducing the time limit would force some women to carry severely impaired or dying fetuses to term – a horrific experience.

7) Some vulnerable women need late-term abortions because an abrupt change in personal circumstances – such as domestic violence, which often escalates in pregnancy – leaves them unable to continue with the pregnancy.

8) Some vulnerable women do not realise that they are pregnant until later in the pregnancy, because they are taking contraceptives, because they are menopausal, or because their periods do not stop. Young women in particular may also go into denial, a serious psychological phenomenon, before they find the courage to approach their GP.

9) Even taking these cases into account, only a tiny proportion of terminations take place after 20 weeks, and 90 per cent of all abortions in the UK are carried out before 12 weeks.

10) Accessing an abortion is already difficult and traumatic enough. The UK does not have abortion on demand, unlike many European countries – it can take months for a woman to have a termination, and hostile doctors can make the process more difficult or delay women in the system until beyond 20 weeks, especially for Irish women who have crossed the sea to access abortion services in the UK.

11) Only 15 per cent of fetuses born before 23-weeks survive to leave their neo-natal units and most will suffer severe health and/or physical problems. Babies born as prematurely as 21-22 weeks are nearly always born brain damaged and severely disabled – meaning that they may have very little quality of life to look forward to.

12) There is no option for ‘viable’ fetuses to be removed from the womb early, so women who carry unwanted pregnancies to term after 20-weeks are forced to carry the growing fetus in their body for months more and then undergo labour, causing permanent physical scars, pain and trauma.

13) When women have to carry unwanted pregnancies to term they risk losing their jobs and damaging their long-term mental and physical health.

14) Fetuses cannot feel pain until much later in the pregnancy, according to experts. ‘The idea of fetal pain is an absurd and cruel one’, said Dr Stuart Derbyshire PhD, a researcher at Birmingham University.

15) Fetuses are never ‘alive’ after abortions, because their brains are not developed enough to sense, think or feel pain.

16) Lowering the time limit to 20-weeks will create a black market trade in unsafe late-term abortions, endangering thousands of women’s lives. Globally some 68,000 women die every year from complications following backstreet abortions. We don’t want that to start happening in the UK.

17) Fetuses are not viable at 20-weeks: they cannot survive alone, and keeping them alive outside the womb requires complicated and expensive medical technology. Even with that technology few survive for long, causing incredible heartbreak to all involved. The idea that fetuses usually survive alone before 24-weeks is ‘a cruel deception for prospective parents with premature babies’, according to Dr Evan Harris MP.

18) Safe, legal abortions at 20-24 weeks rarely have negative psychological effects – but the mental trauma of undergoing an unwanted pregnancy can last a lifetime.

19) In this country, we do not legislate over moral questions such as adultery, and abortion laws should not be the exception to that proud tradition. It is unacceptable to make laws on a moral question where there is any doubt. Pro-life campaigners are already free to make their views heard and to influence individual decisions.

20) The right of a woman to decide what happens to her own body should not be subject to the whims of changing public opinion.

21) Keeping late-term abortion legal will mean that abortions which are going to happen anyway will be carried out safely and hygienically. Many thousands of abortions up to and beyond 24-weeks happened annually before abortion was legalised in the UK in 1967. Those abortions were unsafe and many women died as a result. ‘We used to see women from the local community bleeding to death in accident and emergency after backstreet abortions,’ said retired nurse Iris Fudge.

22) Seventy-six percent of the United Kingdom is pro-choice. The majority of women in the UK want their rights to safe, legal termination to be protected.

23) Those who are campaigning to reduce the time limit want to end legal abortion entirely – a dangerous and arcane concept. Reducing the time limit will bring them one step closer to their goals.

24) If faced with an unintended pregnancy, a woman in consultation with her doctor is the best person to decide on how to proceed.

Laurie Penny (Feminist Fightback), in consultation with Jess McCabe (The F Word), Abortion Rights, The Fawcett Society and the London Feminist Network.


Laurie PennyLaurie Penny is a freelance journalist who blogs regularly for the New Statesman.


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