Sunday, October 28, 2007

Abortion: The new battle

Forty years after the landmark 1967 Abortion Act, new challenges, including salvos from Alex Salmond and the Catholic Church, have stirred militant pro-life and pro-choice groups determined to wage a culture war over a woman’s right to choose

IF THE Scots at the forefront of the fight are to be believed it is a battle for the very heart and soul of the nation, a struggle which will see Scotland gripped by the same kind of no-holds barred culture war as that which has left America bitterly divided between left and right, liberal and conservative and secularists and evangelicals.

The first salvos in the country's new abortion wars were fired just in time for yesterday's 40th anniversary of the 1967 act of parliament which legalised a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy.

First, WAR was formed - Women's Abortion Rights Scotland.

Co-founder Naomi McAuliffe says the pro-choice lobby group was given such a deliberately provocative name to demonstrate the strength of feeling of the women who comprise its membership.

The group was founded in response to recent comments by First Minister Alex Salmond - who personally favours a reduction in the abortion time limit from 24 weeks to 20 weeks - that there should be a national debate about handing powers over abortion laws to Holyrood from Westminster.

WAR took to the streets of Edinburgh on Thursday, demonstrating outside the parliament.

WAR members say they are not seeking an extension of the time limit. Rather they want "moderate liberalisation" of the existing law, including the removal of the need for a woman to have an abortion authorised by two doctors in order to make access to a termination easier.

"Alex Salmond has now made abortion a constitutional issue," said McAuliffe. "We already had many concerns about the constant stream of attacks on a woman's right to an abortion in this country, but the first minister changed things when he brought this issue into the national conversation on independence."

She added that the language surrounding the debate about lowering the time limit for abortions was being framed around science, technology and the viability of the foetus.

"What we are saying is that these issues must be weighed alongside the rights of the woman," said McAuliffe.

"Our concern is that this might all start to turn into some sort of culture war which mirrors America. The Roman Catholic Church wants to see abortion laws devolved to Scotland as it believes Scotland is a more socially conservative country. Salmond's comments come after an election in which the Roman Catholic Church more or less backed the SNP."

"The SNP have to avoid chasing the mythological Catholic vote and being seen as in the pocket of one constituency. We demonstrated to show that there was another constituency - women. We are going to keep this fight going as the forces which oppose a woman's right to choose won't go away."

McAuliffe is also a campaigner for Amnesty International on the issue of violence against women. She made clear that her comments on abortion in no way reflected the views of the organisation.

Amnesty is, however, locked in a battle with the Catholic Church over the human rights organisation's decision to support the right of women to access an abortion in cases of rape and incest.

Amnesty adopted the policy as a result of what its members witnessed in countries such as the Congo where mass rape is used as a weapon of war.

IN late August, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the head of the Catholic Church in Scotland, resigned his Amnesty membership over its policy on abortion. O'Brien had described abortion as the equivalent of two Dunblane massacres a day.

Standing alongside O'Brien, and ranged against the likes of McAuliffe, is Jim Dowson, the Scot who leads the hardline UK Life League, Britain's most vociferous and active pro-life grouping.

Dowson is also upping the ante in the coming "culture wars".

To mark the 40th anniversary of the Abortion Act, he's launching the Life League's most high-profile PR campaign to date, which will see his organisation sending out more than 3000 graphic and uncensored DVDs depicting an actual abortion to every MP, MSP, MEP, high-level civil servant and church leader in Britain.

The film will be accompanied by a dossier detailing how the "founders" of what the pro-life movement call "the UK's abortion industry" were part of the British eugenics movement in the early part of the 20th century.

Included in the dossier are the Scot Marie Stopes and the American Margaret Sanger.

Dowson's organisation has also drawn fire for posting personal contact details of Scottish politicians on websites because of their stance on abortion.

He claims the attitudes of the public to his organisation's street campaigns has shifted too.

Whereas five years ago, Life Leaguers would "get grief from nearly everyone" if they set up stalls in town high streets, today "people are saying: I'm pro-choice but not in favour of abortion after 12 or 13 weeks'."

He calls this a "seismic change" and puts it down to 3D images of unborn babies apparently "walking in the womb" at 12 weeks making people re-think the concept of when life begins.

The UK Life League is relentless in its campaigning. In eight years, it claims to have distributed more than six million pictures of abortions, and is currently making 30,000 mailshots a month.

There are 30 teams in the UK handing out leaflets on the streets.

The Life League is also controversially tying the abortion debate to changing British demographics and immigration.

"The more kids we kill, the more knackered this society will become," says Dowson. "There are 10 million missing kids through abortion. That's why we are importing foreign workers. Thank God for all those Poles coming here. We need them."

Dowson also believes the UK is on the verge of a full-blown culture war over abortion and says his organisation's tactics were central in taking Britain into this new area of public debate.

The Life League has also bought up website domain names for WAR Scotland such as warscotland.com and warscotland.co.uk.

"When people go looking for their website, they will get our material," Dowson says.

Although Dowson is an evangelical Christian, he doesn't believe that the UK culture war on abortion will mimic the US fight between the religious right and secular liberals. "This will be fought around the dinner tables of the chattering classes," he says.

The Life League intends to tap into what it describes as the British fad for "consumer compassion" and "consumer grief" as typified by the Make Poverty History campaign and the reaction to the death of Princess Diana.

As part of his newly-modified rhetoric, Dowson says: "I accept I'll never win the battle I want to win. I'm an absolutist and I want to see an end to all abortion. But even if we implemented the 1967 act to the letter of the law that would be OK."

In other words, he would settle, he claims, for abortion being permitted only if two doctors said a woman's physical or mental health would suffer severely if she were made to carry her baby to full term.

"Now abortion is a consumer choice. If abortion was carried out the way it was laid down in 1967 we'd not exist. I want to see real alternatives to killing kids. Throwing a pregnant teen on the scrapheap or aborting her baby is not a choice."

The Life League is also trying to exploit hardline rhetoric by the pro-choice movement.

"Sometimes the best weapon we have is the pro-abortion lobby. They are so nasty they make us look like choirboys," Dowson claimed.

ONE key target for the Life League is Dr Ellie Lee, an academic and co-ordinator of the Pro-Choice Forum.

Dowson accuses her of advocating the death of newly born babies. She maintains they are quoting her out of context following a hypothetical debate on the radio show The Moral Maze, during which she was discussing the small number of so-called "botched abortions" - late terminations performed incorrectly which result in a baby emerging showing signs of life.

Ethically a doctor must try to resuscitate.

"In the Moral Maze, I was asked do you think a woman should have the right to have the baby killed?'. I said yes - but I was responding to botched abortions'. I admit it was not my best-ever radio performance."

Lee believes that the settled will of the British people is that abortion is an unfortunate part of life. "They don't like it, but they tolerate it," she says.

She believes the UK Life League is hijacking "feminist argument" by claiming that abortion is an act of violence against women, and also ramping up scare tactics by citing scientific studies linking abortion to breast cancer and suicide.

Lee described the Life League as "complete and utter nutters who are threatening and aggressive", and says they are seen as extreme by other more moderate pro-life organisations.

"Groups like SPUC Society for the Protection of Unborn Children want to be respectable. They wish Dowson's lot would just go away."

Lee believes the real inheritors of the British eugenics movement were to be found on the fringes of the modern UK environmental lobby - some of whom believe in a smaller population and smaller families.

However, she admitted that "the discussion about the abortion rate will go on - it's got legs as it's the one area that isn't straightforward". Many people, Lee believes, can't understand why there are more abortions when contraception exists.

"Women are seen as feckless, and irresponsible," she said.

Lee said this was a "misguided analysis", adding: "The problem is seeing abortion as a moral issue, and using the abortion rate as a moral barometer. Abortion is a mechanism employed along with contraception to plan and regulate a family."

Given that most people are having sex earlier and having babies later in life, Lee says she doesn't know why Britain "expects anything other than a rising abortion rate. It's an obvious corollary."

The cultural beliefs that parents have to be perfect, that young women should educate themselves and get good jobs, that teen pregnancies are undesirable, and the financial pressure on young couples, also lead to more people opting for abortions.

Lee also believes the only changes to abortion regulation in the UK will be greater liberalisation - in particular, the removal of the two-doctors rule and easier access to earlier abortions which are safer than late ones.

She also predicted that there could be greater use of drug-induced abortions.

Taking the heat out of the debate is Professor Sheila McLean, director of the Institute of Law and Ethics in Medicine at Glasgow University. As a voice of reason, she says she trusts that Scotland is "facing a short-term skirmish rather than a full-scale war".

The Westminster government stated last week that there is not enough evidence to back a change in the law on abortion after studying a range of scientific research.

However, parliament's science and technology committee will not complete its report into whether the upper time limit should fall from 24 weeks to 20 or 22 weeks until Monday.

McLean said that the political back-drop provided "an opportunity for both extremes to make their case".

"What both sides forget ... is that most people are ambivalent on this issue - they are reluctant to judge other people over such a major choice," McLean said.

"Britain has settled into a reasonably comfortable place and the extremes do not represent the majority. There is a degree of tolerance in the UK that has led us to this middle ground."
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