A recent political skirmish over late abortions in Britain brought out some attitudes that Canadian pro-life people can expect to face as our own battle continues. The British battle was over a private members’ bill, sponsored by backbench Liberal David Alton, which sought to reduce the upper-age limit for abortion from 28 weeks to 18.
Abortion legislation based on gestational-age limits reflects the belief that a society’s interest in protecting the pre-born child only becomes compelling at a certain stage in pregnancy. Restrictions on abortion become more stringent when the child reaches the stage of viability (that is, becomes capable of sustaining independent life).
By the time the Alton bill passed second reading in the British House of Commons, its sponsors had reluctantly allowed exceptions to be added for fetal abnormality and for cases of rape and incest involving girls under 18. When it came to the House for debate at the crucial report stage, various other votable amendments had been proposed which would have put the age limit at 26, 34 or 20 weeks.
Sir Bernard Braine, a Conservative MP and prominent pro-lifer, reflected the pro-life position when he said during the debate that 26 weeks or 24 weeks were unacceptable. By 1984, he noted, 72 per cent of babies born between 22 and 27 weeks’ gestation had survived their premature births. That success rate had almost doubled in just three years: in 1981 only 29 per cent of babies born that prematurely had survived.
Despite the obvious anomaly of the criminal law sanctioning the deaths of babies who would otherwise stand a good chance of surviving a premature delivery, British MPs hauled the Alton Bill through a series of parliamentary maneuvers which Alton later described as “procedural mugging.” He said he had been “tantalizingly close” to winning on an amendment which would have pegged the upper limit at 20 weeks.
While the upper limit for abortion on demand in Britain remains at 28 weeks, the underlying reason for the MPs’ refusal to protect viable pre-born babies appears to reflect an ongoing and deepening prejudice against the disabled.
Jo Richardson, a Labor MP, sponsored the 26-week amendment. Speaking in the House of Commons she said that the “practical” limit would be 24 weeks, since doctors allow for a two-week margin of error in estimating gestational age. Echoing arguments heard many times elsewhere, she said that ultrasound or amniocentesis testing for fetal abnormalities could not take place until the sixteenth week of pregnancy and then the results take four weeks. Sometimes, she said, the test had to be repeated and a 24-week limit was barely enough.
A 24-week limit is supported by Prime Minister Thatcher and by the British Medical Association as well as the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Even David Steel, current Liberal leader and author of the 1967 Abortion Act, supports 24 weeks. He also believes that pro-life supporters have no business is legislating abortion. The sponsors of the Alton Bill are pro-life, he said. “Those of us who don’t share that view have the responsibility for determining what should be the boundary of the criminal law,” he told the House of Commons.
If this British debate has any Canadian parallel it is the extreme difficultly encountered when attempting to amend existing legislation along pro-life lines. And this gestational-age debate has also spotlighted an alarming return to the belief that the disabled have no rights at all. The idea that fetal handicap is sufficient grounds for abortion is again becoming entrenched in the opinions of those in the medical profession.
During the Alton campaign, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children sponsored a Gallup Poll of all practicing gynecologists in Britain. The poll found that, on the question of an upper age limit, practicing doctors are far more conservative than are the organizations supposedly representing them. A majority, 64 percent, support an upper limit of20 weeks or less (with exceptions for the life of the mother and for cases of fetal handicap).
That, however, is the good news. The bad news is what the British doctors consider to be handicaps severe enough to warrant the death sentence.
Asked what should be the upper limit for abortions in cases of Anencephaly or of Potter’s Disease (in both conditions the baby cannot survive very long), 98 percent of doctors agree with abortion, with varying percentages on what upper age limit is acceptable. When it comes to Muscular Dystrophy or Down’s Syndrome, 93 percent would agree to abortion, again with varying upper age limits.
The last part of the three-part question asked what should be the upper age limit for pre-born children diagnosed with a club foot, hare lip or impaired hearing or sight. Only 46 percent said they would not allow abortion in such cases, 9 percent said they did not know what upper age limit should be set, and the rest varied in the upper age limit chosen. One percent went so far as to say there should be no limit at all; that is, they held that a child with a clubfoot or impaired hearing could be killed right up to the moment of birth.
It would be tempting here to say that these are British attitudes, unlikely to be shared by Canadians. But we should remember that, in December 1986, a Down’s Syndrome baby died in a Montreal hospital after being deprived of food and water for almost two weeks. Even more recently, anencephalic babies have been “kept alive” on support systems so that their organs can be harvested for transplants. Need I say more?