Abortion is the political football that no adult wants to touch. In America, a fifteen year old pop singer has polarised himself with his predominantly female fan base over it, yet our Secretary of State for Health is ducking the whole conversation by ignoring the fact that he has the power to change the laws – or else a responsibility to justify them.
In 2008, while he was Shadow Health Secretary, Andrew Lanlsey pledged that as Health Secretary in a Conservative government, he would make it easier for women to obtain abortions earlier. By amending the ‘two doctor’ rule as well as reducing the time limit to 22 weeks, Lansley wanted to help more women terminate their pregnancies in a way that was “earlier and medical” instead of “later and surgical.” Despite the British Pregnancy Advisory Service arguing at the time that such a law wouldn’t actually achieve this aim anyway, since late term abortions usually occur as a result of other factors rather than the ‘two doctor’ rule, this was still Lansley’s officially stated position whilst campaigning for the office he now holds, and – it seems – he has never retracted it.
This week, the high court ruled (against the BPAS and in favour of Lansley) that the 1967 Abortion Act couldn’t be reinterpreted to allow ‘home abortion’ without elected representatives of the public indicating that it should be so. Justice Supperstone did, however, make a point of clarifying that Lansley could definitely amend the law to this end, if he wanted to.
Before Lansley gets into a catfight about whether he was lying back in 2008 when he said he wanted to make it easier for women to get early abortions (pro-choice groups are already starting to talk of lobbying him), he needs to explain, properly, why he is opposed to the specific procedure of abortion at home.
Perhaps ironically, the high court ruling comes the same week that teenybopper Justin Bieber caused a small storm when he told Rolling Stone magazine that he “doesn’t really agree with abortion,” and that he thinks people should save sex for someone they love. When you consider some of the messages, both blatant and subliminal, being sent out to kids every time they turn on MTV, it’s almost worrying to think how much controversy Bieber’s comments, which were surely naive at worst, have caused. The only potentially offensive part of his interview is when he is asked if his view of abortion alters for rape victims; he says such situations are “sad” but that “everything happens for a reason.” If Bieber actually meant that he believes rape happens for a “reason,” rather than every life is conceived for a reason, which is how some people are interpreting it, he obviously warrants a shoe or other similar object chucking at his head next time he’s on stage. But that’s probably not what he meant.
Either way, is there not room for some small sense of admiration for the kid, whether you agree with him or not? He said something unfashionable and polarising, which will almost certainly narrow his fan base, because he felt it to be morally true (although in America being ardently pro-life is no doubt a rather less unconventional opinion than it is here in Britain).
Meanwhile, Andrew Lansley can barely muster the courage to admit that the medical process of abortion is even something that falls under his job description, relying on the courts to state what the law is, rather than take responsibility for amending or defending it. And since it seems Lansley doesn’t actually want the law to be interpreted differently, even if it could be, he should say why, loud and clear, he thinks so. Justice Supperstone left the decision in his hands because he is a democratic representative of the public: the public have a right to know what he really thinks about abortion, and why he thinks it.
After all, despite the many problems with the current system, abortion at home is not necessarily the only, or even the best, solution to all of them. One alternative to the undoubtedly awful scenario where a woman ends up miscarrying her child during her journey home, for example – which is said to be the main reason why home abortions are being considered as preferable – would be for her to remain in the clinic after taking the second pill, and receive proper care until the whole ordeal is over. After all, going through a miscarriage – whether deliberately induced or otherwise – doesn’t sound like something women should feel pressured into doing at home, possibly alone, when they could be receiving expert care and advice.
Some critics have also warned there could be a danger of pills being taken away and sold or used for underhand purposes – such as being given to someone other than the intended recipient. So perhaps the 1967 Abortion Act just needs some better safeguards against such dangers – unlikely though they are – before being amended to better fit modern medical flexibilities.
Or perhaps none of this would matter; perhaps it’s all been worked out already. Justice Supperstone did say, after all, that from a medical perspective, no-one could identify any problems with home abortions. The stumbling block was always one of legality – and democracy.
In any case, whatever Andrew Lansley’s reasoning is, and whatever the specific nuances of his actual views turn out to be, he should either seek to amend the law, or else he should clearly explain why he hasn’t done so. Just proving what the law already says isn’t really what politicians are elected to do. We have judges (and teenage pop stars) for that.