The sun is shining, but this is not a beautiful day. The news that Health Secretary Alex Neil wants to reduce the time limit for abortion in an independent Scotland has left me feeling angry, frightened and unsettled.
He told Scotland on Sunday,
“I do think there is now a case, given the state of medical science and the fact that babies do survive from an much earlier stage in the pregnancy.”
He doesn’t state what he thinks the limit should be set at, saying that he would want to take evidence and establish what the consensus was.
But the medical consensus is already clear. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), whose opinion I trust to be more informed than any politicians, says that the limit should remain at 24 weeks.
But why is this the case, if Alex Neil, Jeremy Hunt, Theresa May and others are citing medical evidence that premature babies can now survive much earlier than 24 weeks? Why is the RCOG arguing against the evidence?
Well, it isn’t. There is no such evidence. The RCOG clearly states,
“Based on the available and anticipated evidence on the neonatal survival rates of premature babies, at the moment, 24 weeks appears to be the threshold at which premature babies have a better survival rate.”
And they further point out that just 2% of abortions across the UK take place between 20-24 weeks, and are carried out only when the woman or baby’s health is at risk. What’s more, the RCOG explicitly says,
“Lowering the time limit will not result in a lower abortion rate. Women who are desperate to have an abortion will look for the means to have one, and this includes having an illegal and unsafe abortion in their own countries or travelling to a country where late abortions are carried out.”
It would be difficult to be clearer about the impact that a reduction in the time limit would have on women.
The House of Commons committee on Science and Technology took evidence on this as recently as 2007. It was confronted with “experts” who presented evidence that the survival rate of babies born under 24 weeks had improved. Ben Goldacre has provided an excellent summary of the gradual disintegration of this evidence, which turned out to be based on the survival rate of babies who live long enough to be transferred to neonatal care: a very different starting point than the total number who are born prematurely.
I am sick of this, and I am shaken. I believe that women ought to be equally represented in all arguments and discussions about our society. I am fed up with “women’s issues” being defined only as those which relate to family, children and housework. But remarks like Hunt’s and Neil’s force us back to basic rights relating to our bodies and our reproductive choices. Arguments which I thought we had won re-emerge, and while we’re fighting these battles all over again, the sphere of issues in which women have a legitimate interest is once again narrowed to babies, birth and bodies.
And I am shaken, because it never crossed my mind that this is what independence might mean. I have become complacent in looking pityingly southwards as their politicians privatise the NHS and play with education, safe in the knowledge that it will not happen here. I have said before that while I am not yet entirely convinced about independence, I am strongly inclined in that direction. That may not now be the case. If the establishment of a new Scotland means that the right-wingers and the more extreme religious groups will have the chance to attack women’s rights on the basis of non-existent medical evidence, then it is not worth the risk.
This is a bad, bad day for the SNP, for Scottish women, and for the cause of independence. The sun is shining, but it is not a beautiful day.