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Tuesday, May 19, 1998 Published at 18:24 GMT 19:24 UK


Health: Latest News

Abortion: a limited choice?



The Abortion Act of 1967 made terminations legally available in Britain from the following April.

I recently broadcast a piece marking the 30th anniversary of that date, and reflecting on the realities for women seeking an abortion three decades on. It's a difficult subject for any journalist, prompting as it does, such wide-ranging and emotional reactions in listeners.

My piece investigated the sometimes-promoted view that abortions are easily available.... too easy to obtain in many peoples' minds. But what I found was that women in many parts of the country are experiencing great difficulties in ending unwanted pregnancies.

The cause seems, on the face of it, to be that now-familiar NHS problem of money. If women live in an area where a lot of abortions are requested and the budget is tight, then they are often subjected to restrictions beyond those imposed by law.

Local restrictions

In fact, in many parts of the country now, it would be difficult for a woman to obtain a termination on the NHS if she is past 12 weeks pregnant, despite the fact that the legal limit is 24 weeks.

And what is one of the most difficult life decisions for some women can be delayed still further by waiting lists and arguments between health trusts and GPs over who should pay the bill.

It's virtually impossible, according to Brook Advisory Centres, to have an abortion independently of your family doctor if there's any dispute over costs. And my investigation came across at least one area where women are asked to undergo means-testing before they can be offered a free abortion.

Ethical questions aside

Putting aside any personal feelings on the subject, as we are constantly required to do as BBC correspondents, it seemed to me that the bureaucracy of the NHS was providing an unseen and not-talked-about obstacle for expectant women, which has nothing to do with the ethics of abortion or the law.

We spend so much time debating whether or not abortion is right or wrong, but fail to understand that even if you are able to reconcile your personal feelings on the subject, the operation is not necessarily available to all.

And that means, once again, those who can pay, get. Those who have little money, or lack the know-how to fight the system, and who are perhaps those in most need of help, are left holding the baby.

Doctors opt out

But my investigations led me to discover a more worrying trend. That, far from society becoming more permissive and accepting, doctors in increasing numbers are choosing not to learn the skills necessary to perform terminations.

It seems that medical advances have given young doctors so many exciting avenues to explore that they haven't got the time, or perhaps inclination, to equip themselves with the expertise to work in such a taboo area.

And they have every right to opt out because of a conscience clause in every doctor's contract.

One consultant pointed out to me that a new generation of doctors, in their twenties and thirties, no longer remember the horrific results of back-street, illegal abortions of the early 1960s.

Their sense of clinical right or wrong must surely be affected by our reluctance to talk honestly about the consequences of reducing the service.

So the waiting lists get longer, with greater numbers of women requesting abortions, but fewer doctors available to offer the service. Whether the Pro-Life lobby succeeds in preventing changes in the law to make abortion easier or not, if the NHS is unwilling or unable to safeguard employing enough doctors who will perform the task, it will all be academic.



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