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Maria Caulfield’s ‘baseless claims’ about abortion are concerning

6 min read

Diana Johnson MP responds to Maria Caulfield MP saying reducing the time limit for abortion flies in the face of the evidence. 

In an interview with The House magazine last week, the new Conservative Vice-Chair for Women, Maria Caulfield MP called for a Parliamentary debate on reducing the 24-week time limits for abortions and criticised moves to decriminalise abortion and repeal the century-old laws which still treat abortion as a criminal act.

As the MP who moved the Bill to decriminalise abortion in March last year, I want to set the record straight and correct some misplaced concerns in her article. The decriminalisation of abortion would not have anything like the impact which she states, and the claims she makes on late-stage abortions up to 24 weeks do not match with the scientific evidence.

Let us start the 24-week time limit under the 1967 Abortion Act, beyond which abortions are only permissible in very exceptional circumstances. Whilst I respect her calls for a Parliamentary debate, she neglects to point out that this issue has been already discussed and debated time and again in Parliament. Indeed, whenever Parliament has discussed abortion in the fifty years since the Abortion Act was passed, MPs have talked almost exclusively about ways to restrict the practice – my Bill last year was one of the few solitary examples of a Parliamentary debate looking at a progressive way forward on abortion.

There was an extensive Parliamentary debate on this issue in 2008, and at the time the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee considered detailed expert evidence on time limits. They found no evidence that there had been any significant improveament in the survival rates of babies before 24 weeks’ gestation; and they found that foetal pain also isn’t consciously felt before 24 weeks. It was partly on the basis of this evidence, which was reinforced by experts including the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), that Parliament voted to retain the 24-week time limit in 2008. There is no evidence that the scientific evidence has shifted since this point.

But it is also essential that we consider the reasons why many women have late-stage abortions. The overwhelming majority of abortions (92%) take place early on in the first 13 weeks of gestation, but the minority of women who have them from 14 to 24 weeks often face very practical barriers beyond their control.  For many, the sole reason they end up having late-stage abortions is because of the length of wait at an abortion clinic – a 2007 survey found nearly a quarter of women had to wait more than three weeks, beyond the maximum recommended by RCOG.

If Ms Caulfield wishes to reduce the number of abortions after 12 weeks, she would do well to support efforts to reduce waiting times and improve reproductive healthcare for women at the earliest stage of pregnancy – an issue which she appears to neglect in her interview. I fully support any steps to ensure pregnant women got the best help as early as possible, to reduce the proportion of late-stage abortions, but reducing the time limit for abortion flies in the face of the evidence, and would merely deprive these women of essential support and force them to turn to other means when faced with an unwanted pregnancy – exactly contrary to the stated aims in her interview.

But it is the Vice-Chair’s comments about abortion decriminalisation which I find particularly concerning. She claims in her interview that Britain has “one of the most liberal abortion laws in the world”, and said that the current abortion law “protects vulnerable women” such as those “being pressurised into sex selective abortion.” This repeats claims she made when Parliament considered my decriminalisation Bill last year, in which she said that decriminalisation would “would make the Abortion Act … obsolete and unenforceable” and that my Bill constituted “a charter for unsafe abortion practices, not dissimilar to the back-street abortions that the Abortion Act 1967 was supposedly meant to end.”

All of these claims are baseless. Decriminalisation would retain the exact same conditions for accessing abortion post-24 weeks, and ensure that as now, abortion continues to be provided by registered healthcare professionals. Contrary to her claims in the interview, Britain also does not have the most liberal abortion laws, and many countries do not criminalise women for abortion: Canada and Australia are the most progressive examples and there is no evidence that decriminalisation in those countries has led to a rise in late-stage abortions. But it may surprise readers to know that two countries with conservative abortion laws also do not criminalise women: namely Poland and the United States.  

Nor is there any truth to the claim that decriminalisation would in any way give the green light to those who coerce or assault pregnant women – quite the contrary. Whereas the current criminal laws are wrongly directed at women who have abortions, a new legal framework could correct this, directing the full force of the law against those who coerce women. It is disappointing that Ms Caulfield fails to address this in her interview.  

Contrary to what she claims, some women are suffering as a result of our current abortion laws. The requirement to make two trips to an abortion clinic and seek two doctors’ signatures is out of step with any other medical procedure, and it poses a real obstacle to some of the most vulnerable women in our society – such as those in abusive relationships, unable to leave for fear their partners have found out. These are the women who have contributed to an alarming rise in the number of abortion pills bought illegally online. A modernised abortion law would strengthen the legal safeguards for these women: its aim is precisely to ensure that healthcare practitioners are able to support these women straight away without operating outside the law.

In her interview, Maria Caulfield MP calls for all elected politicians, whatever our politics, to show more respect for each other. I agree, and I don’t doubt the sincerity of her views or seek to misrepresent her position. But those who opposed my Bill should reciprocate: the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children and others have made grossly misleading claims about my bill, and accused me of advocating “abortion-up-to-birth.” It is time they retracted this and contributed to a grown-up debate.

Diana Johnson is Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull North. This piece was written in response to the interview with Maria Caulfield on 1st March 2018. That article is available here.

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