Rights and legalities of abortion

The deliberate termination of pregnancy is a highly emotive subject, giving rise to fiercely held views both in favour of and against the operation. Those in favour of allowing legal abortion argue that since women always have and always will turn to abortion, then it should at least be obtainable in safe conditions. The high incidence of maternal death and infection suffered in countries where abortion is illegal does appear to indicate that legal and religious sanctions have no weight when women are determined not to continue with unwanted pregnancies. It is also argued that women should have control over their own bodies and that a woman’s rights are more important than those of a foetus. Those against abortion argue that life begins at conception and that abortion, for whatever reasons, is murder. The belief that conception marks the beginning of a human life with rights equal to those of the mother, also leads to an abhorrence of ‘morning-after’ or post-coital contraception. American legal systems recognize implantation as the threshold of life. Any action after this event is classed as an abortion and subject to the legal procedures surrounding an abortion. However, because the morning-after Pill and the coil act before implantation, they are legally classed as birth control measures. The post-coital Pill can be used effectively up to 72 hours after unprotected intercourse. It causes the uterus to become hostile to a fertilized egg, not allowing it to implant. A doctor can insert an IUD up to 120 hours after unprotected intercourse, with the same reaction. A new Pill is being pioneered which claims to have the same effect up to six weeks after conception. It remains to be seen not only if this is effective but also whether the legal and medical professions in most countries will accept its use. Certainly there can be no doubt, from past experience, that many women will be happy to use it.

Different societies and religions hold differing views about abortion.

Although most religions have comdemned induced abortion, the application of criminal sanctions to deter its practice were introduced only in the nineteenth century when induced abortion became illegal. Restrictions, however, were sometimes lifted when the life of the mother was threatened.

The first move regarding the legalization of abortion was made by the Soviet Union in 1920 when the government authorized abortion at the request of the mother. Ever since the late 1940s movement to legalize abortion on all or some grounds has been well supported, encouraged by widespread support for women’s rights, by official concern about rising birth rates and a rapidly expanding world population, and the high maternal death rates that are associated with illegal abortions

Seventy-five per cent of the world’s population now live in countries where abortion is legal to some extent. For instance, in some American states and in Scandinavian countries first trimester abortion is legal ‘on request’, that is at the sole discretion of the woman. In China, abortion is freely available, not just by choice but often by the persuasion of the woman’s advisors.

In Britain, abortion is available until viability of the foetus if doctors agree that the mental or physical health of the woman or her family would be more threatened by completing than by terminating the pregnancy, or if there is a chance that the baby would be born seriously handicapped.

British law recognizes 28 weeks as the threshold of viability but recent advances in the care of premature babies have meant that most doctors are reluctant to perform an abortion after 20 weeks, unless the need is very great, and certainly not after 24 weeks, unless the baby would have a gross abnormality or the mother is or will be put at risk.

It has been shown that as soon as a country’s laws of abortion have been relaxed, the number of abortions tends to increase steeply, at least at first. Of legal abortees the greatest proportion are married women, and of those illegal abortees the largest proportion are young girls under the age of 16, the unmarried and previous abortees.