‘Abortion is a very civilised thing’

In a new WORLDbytes film, Ellie Lee puts the case for making abortion a personal choice, not a legal matter.

Saleha Ali

Topics Politics

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As abortion hits the UK headlines again, with some calling for a reduction in the 24-week time-limit, a new report by citizen-TV station WORLDbytes seeks to set the record straight on this most heated of moral issues. In an on-the-sofa discussion, WORLDbytes volunteers talked about abortion, and the question of whether it should be treated as a personal choice for women rather than as a narrowly legal or scientific matter, with Ellie Lee, director of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent.

Abortion has rarely been out of the news over the past year. Moral posturing during the Conservative Party conference last month ensured that it was back on the agenda. Conservative health secretary Jeremy Hunt said he would support a reduction in the legal limit for abortion from 24 weeks to 12 weeks. The Lib-Con coalition’s new women and equalities minister, Maria Miller, said she would support a reduction to 20 weeks. There have also been more ‘pro-life’ protests outside abortion clinics, and in September there was the case of Sarah Catt, imprisoned for eight years under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act for carrying out a late-term abortion on herself.

Abortion, it seems, is being used as a moral compass by our holier-than-thou elite, which seems incapable of simply letting women and doctors make decisions for themselves. What should be the proper approach to abortion in a civilised society?

Asked by the WORLDbytes volunteers what she thought the legal time-limit on abortion should be, Lee said: ‘Abortion should be provided to women under law and in practice as early as possible and as late as necessary. I actually don’t think there should be a law on abortion over and above law which regulates medical procedure in general. So in that sense, my view on legal reform would be that abortion should be decriminalised. That is to say, the 1861 Act should be repealed.’

But Lee made it clear that there is room, and in fact a need, for a moral debate about abortion; the rightness or wrongness of abortion cannot be reduced to scientific or medical issues such as fetal viability, she said.

‘I don’t think we can ever get to a position where everybody is going to hold the same position on this question. You can’t adjudicate on it through science. It is not a question which is susceptible to a scientific answer. It’s one which people of different religious faiths have different perspectives on. And if you accept that you live in a society where there is a range of opinions, then the only consistent, truly liberal view that you could have when it comes to abortion is for choice.’

Asked what she thought about the Sarah Catt case, Lee said Catt should not have been imprisoned. ‘I think it would have been preferable for her case to have been managed by an abortion service. To end up doing what she did [self-aborting her fetus at eight months]… she must have been really desperate not to have that child. The decision to send her to prison for eight years seems to me to be utterly beyond the pale. For me, this case is a cast-iron argument for the decriminalisation of abortion.’

When interrogated about her defence of clinical late abortions, Lee said it made sense to have birth as the cut-off point for abortion, because ‘at the point of birth, you have two separate individuals, so there is no longer any conflict between protecting the life of the one and protecting the life of the other. They are independent, separate beings. Before that point, to save the fetus, you have to interfere with the life of the woman… so there is an infringement of a woman’s moral autonomy.’

When asked if society might ‘educate away’ the need for abortions, for example through better sex-education in schools to prevent teenage pregnancies, Lee pointed out that nearly 40 per cent of women seeking abortions are mothers, and only a tiny percentage are teenagers. Furthermore, so-called ‘abortion prevention’ strategies present abortion as a naturally negative thing, inviting an unwarranted level of government interference into the practice.

‘I simply see abortion as a fact of life’, she said. ‘If we accept that we want to have sex for fun, that we want to have it more than two or three times in our lives – which is the number of times most of us will seek to have children – then we have to accept that unwanted, unplanned pregnancies will happen. And they happen to completely responsible, upstanding citizens all the time, all over the place.’

Asked about ‘pro-life’ campaigners who protest outside abortion clinics, Lee said that while she would defend their right to express their opinions, ‘I think it’s extremely bad faith for them to exercise that right’. ‘If they had better faith, they would not exercise the right and they would do something else.’ However, Lee was also critical of pro-choice activists’ sometimes illiberal response to these protesters. ‘That they are seeking to use public-order legislation to prevent the protests is as problematic as the protests themselves.’

Lee argued that there is no contradiction between being pro-choice in relation to abortion and also supporting the right to freedom of expression for anti-choice campaigners. ‘We should have a system of law and policy which gives as much sway as possible to the variation in views and opinions, and then everybody can live out their lives and express their opinions as they see fit.’

Saleha Ali is an assistant producer at WORLDbytes and co-presenter of the documentary film, Sylvia Pankhurst: Everything is Possible (2011).

Watch Abortion: The Civilised Solution

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Topics Politics


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