Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Abortion: how the 40-year-old law traps NHS patients

Guest post from Natalie Bennett

Abortion is sometimes presented as a marginal issue, something of concern only to feckless teenagers, the disorganised and unlucky woman. But that’s far from the case. One in three British women will have an abortion by the time they reach the age of 45. Contraceptive failure is the chief reason (and contraceptives are a great deal less reliable than the popular view would have it) – and many women having abortions already have one or more children.

Where women live – and who they are – will have a considerable impact on the provision of that abortion. In Scotland in 2002, 99.8% of abortions took place in NHS hospitals. In England and Wales only 42% were NHS facilities, while 22% were obtained privately. (The rest were funded by the NHS in private facilities.)

In some parts of England and Wales the waiting list for an NHS abortion is more than seven weeks; the average two to four weeks, although the official target maximum waiting time is 21 days.

That wait has two main impacts – there’s stress and distress, then there’s potential medical effects. While having an abortion is safer than continuing the pregnancy, the rate of complications does increase with the gestation period, and for a number of women may mean being forced to change from a medical abortion (i.e. taking hormone pills), to a surgical abortion.

When the current abortion law was passed 40 years ago, medical knowledge was considerably less advanced than it is now. The only method of abortion available was surgical, and the level of complications considerably higher. So the law at that time specified that the procedure could only be carried out by a doctor, in a specific facility. Also, the politics of the time led to a requirement being added, one needed for no other procedure, that the signatures of two doctors be obtained to authorise it.

Many organisations, the Royal College of Nurses and the British Medical Association among them, have formally backed the removal of some or all of those outdated provisions in the law.
In many other countries nurses and midwives provide abortions, with safety rates entirely comparable to those of doctors; in many countries women are able to complete medical abortions in the comfort and security of their own home. Making changes to the law in Britain would help the NHS to significant reduce waiting times. So too would the removal of the two-doctor rule.
These are issues now the subject of a significant campaign by women’s groups, which has been given new impetus by the drive by anti-abortion activists, such as Ann Widdicombe, to tack anti-abortion provisions on to the Human Embryology and Fertilisation bill now going through parliament.

And it is an issue being taken up by the Green Party. The party’s policy is already solid, stating that women’s access to abortion should not be less than it is under the current law, but a motion before the Reading party conference later this month, which I am proposing, backed by Caroline Lucas, MEP, and Sian Berry, our London mayoral candidate (and many others), calls for improvements to the law to remove the two-doctor rule, to allow appropriately trained nurses and midwives to carry out the procedure, and to remove unnecessary restrictions on where the procedure can be carried out.

What this can achieve is simple. By removing unnecessary barriers to provision, and unnecessary costs, the NHS should be able to greatly improve its provision of abortion services, without spending any extra money. And women using the NHS should be able to receive an appropriate, supportive service that does not force them to wait – eventually it could be hoped – more than a few days for the procedure once they have made the decision to have an abortion. It may never be possible to entirely remove the inequalities in NHS and private treatment, but changing the law as proposed by the Green Party motion would be a considerable step in the right direction.


Leftwing Criminologist said...

I hope the green party passes this motion. The Socialist Party has been arguing these points for quite a while.
I'd argue however that it is possible to end the inequalities in the health service, but only with a democratically planned service.

Ecolass said...

The main reason I can't support the Green Party, despite being very concerned with environmental issues, is their support for abortion. How can you claim to care about human rights yet ignore the rights of unborn humans?... :/ Passing this motion would be going further in the wrong direction. The emphasis should be on preventing unwanted pregnancy, not terminating it. Have a little compassion and consistancy please!

Natalie Bennett said...

The motion does not change the existing policy, which stresses the need to reduce unwanted pregnancy: To quote:

H320 The fact that the number of abortions carried out in England and Wales continues to rise should be of concern to all. Given the health risks associated with any medical and surgical procedure and many people's moral discomfort with induced terminations, it is entirely understandable that many wish to see this number significantly reduced.

H321 The Green Party recognises the problems caused by unwanted pregnancies and supports a multi-policy strategy to reduce them, including:

a)ensuring adequate sex education in all schools (see ED307). This
should be done at a sufficiently early age that children should be
fully aware of the potential consequences of sexual activity before they are likely to become sexually active. Schools should also teach life skills, including those relating to caring for and raising children, so that young people feel better prepared to become parents when the time is right for them (see ED305).

b)ensuring adequate financial and social support for parents,
particularly lone parents and those with disabled children, so that
women do not feel pressure to terminate a pregnancy purely because they would be unable to make financial ends meet (see EC730-733 and 'Social Welfare').

c)ensuring adequate provision of free family planning advice by
properly trained health workers and counsellors (see H301) and the
provision of free contraceptives. To ensure proper protection of their rights and wellbeing, children under the age of consent should feel fully able to seek such support and facilities without their parents necessarily having to be informed.