Monday, October 08, 2012

Please can we not have a cross-border bidding war over abortion!

It was only a matter of time before journalists, in the wake of Jeremy Hunt's comments on abortion (that he favours a reduction in the time limit to 12 weeks), asked Alex Neil, the new Scottish health secretary, for his views on the subject. 

Scotland on Sunday got there first. There headline was "Health Secretary Alex Neil signals abortion law "change after independence""

This infuriated some nationalists on Twitter who complained bitterly that his words were being twisted and that he hadn't really said that.

Well, if you read the article, he was the one who seems to have brought up independence.
Speaking to Scotland on Sunday, Neil suggested that the dramatic cut backed by Hunt was unrealistic but he added the legislation should be reviewed in the event of abortion law being transferred from Westminster to Holyrood as a result of independence.
“I do thing (sic) there is a case to be had for a reduction from 24 weeks, but I don’t know if 12 weeks is realistic, frankly,” Neil said
“But 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.“I do think there is a case for looking to bring down the number of weeks, but that is a personal opinion.
Now, there's a surprise, a Nationalist talking about what might happen after independence. At least we know that Neil favours a reduction in the time limit, but he doesn't speak for the whole SNP. We know Alex Salmond favours a reduction to 20 weeks. But there are also politicians in all parties, including the Liberal Democrats, who want to see it reduced to as little as 12 weeks. 
There is no point in reducing this to a bidding war as to what might happen on either side of the border. Wherever there's a parliament with responsibility, people will try at some point to reduce the time limit. What's important is that those of us who want the law to stay as it is, or for some of the restrictions such as the requirement for two doctors to sign, to be lifted, prepare our case. I think we could look to  the Equal Marriage campaign with its positive, simple, reasonable message for guidance.
Neil talked about policy being made after taking the evidence into account. He seemed to be talking about the evidence about when babies can survive from. I think it's vital to look at the effect on the mother of potentially being forced to continue with an unwanted pregnancy, too. On evidence, there's a really good article in today's Guardian by obstetrician Wendy Savage. She said:
In 2007 the House of Commons science and technology committee published its 12th report on Scientific Developments Relating to the Abortion Act 1967. It concluded that although improvements in survival of babies born over 24 weeks had occurred since the upper limit was reduced in 1990, that was not the case for those under 24 weeks. This was based on the first Epicure study, a study of 4,000 premature babies (born from 22 to 26 weeks) treated in all the neonatal intensive care units in the UK and Eire, in 1995.Since then the second national study of babies born in 2006 has been published and there is no significant change in the number of extremely premature babies surviving. At 22 weeks three babies (1%) survived, one of whom is developing normally at three years, while one is moderately and the other severely handicapped. At 23 weeks 15% survived from the onset of labour and just over half had no disability at three years of age: no better than in 1995.

Some people were saying on Twitter yesterday that they thought Neil should either retract his comments or resign. I see no need for him to do that. He is in no position to restrict women's access to abortion and, frankly, I'd rather know what he wants rather than find out by accident. There is no prospect of Holyrood getting the power to decide abortion law any time soon. 
This issue has nothing to do with independence. We will have to fight the battle at Westminster at some time or other or Holyrood. This issue is emotive enough, and way too important, without it becoming hijacked by an independence bidding war. I don't think that was Alex Neil's intention. He was just doing what nationalists do. If you had asked him whether the sky was blue, he'd have found some way of saying it would be bluer after independence and the sun would shine brighter on the lovely money trees.
At least all this fuss has made me do something I should have done ages ago - joined the Abortion Rights campaign. It's only £20 for the year and I suspect it may be doing more trade than usual, courtesy of Mr Hunt. Don't forget Sophie Bridger's Your Choice campaign either.

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