Everybody has their personal opinion on abortion and there is no reason why Jeremy Hunt should be an exception. The Foreign Secretary and Tory leadership candidate's view that the time limit should be 12 weeks is some respects is no surprise. It made headlines in 2012.
What is surprising is that someone who was Secretary of State for Health for six years learned so little about pregnancy and abortion that he thinks something magical happens at 12 weeks, which means abortion is acceptable before but not after. At least his arch-Tory colleague Jacob Rees-Mogg MP shows consistency in opposing all abortions because he believes a new human life begins at fertilisation.
MPs who are more liberal, but still think there should be a time limit, plump for 24 weeks on the basis that it marks when there is a reasonable change that a born baby could survive…. but 12 weeks? There is no medical or moral principle that you can use to stack up that. It’s just a random week: one more than 11 weeks, one less than 13.
A former Secretary of State for Health might be expected to know just a smidgeon about abortion, since the law gives the post-holder particular (you might say peculiar) powers over it. Our law makes the Secretary of State responsible for issuing licences to abortion clinics and in that capacity he licensed the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (Bpas), where I am CEO, to provide abortion to 24 weeks.
The law similarly made him responsible for implementing regulations to allow abortion pills to be taken at home - to improve women’s access to early services - which he refused to. These decisions may not have had anything to do with his personal views, he has (quite properly) said that his opinion is not policy. This is beside the point. The point is that in the time he presided over the abortion service, it is reasonable to expect that he might have learned a thing or two.
A 101 course for public servants with responsibility for abortion should include the following reasons why a random cut off for abortion at 12 weeks is stupid:
- Sometimes women don’t find out they’re pregnant until then, especially if they’re using normally reliable contraception, or if they have irregular periods as is often when they’re young or peri-menopausal.
- Sometimes women need time to decide whether they want n abortion or not.
- Sometimes things change, because a wanted pregnancy can turns into a crisis if the woman loses her partner, her home, her job or has problems with existing family.
- Sometimes couples find their wanted pregnancy is affected by health problems, which couldn’t be diagnosed earlier.
Abortion is a necessary part of the complicated lives women lead. It should be a personal and private decision for a woman, which they are trusted to make for themselves. Politicians who respect women should understand that she is best placed to decide if, when and with whom she has a child.
I have no trouble respecting Jeremy Hunt’s personal views and judgement about the abortion time limit – irrational as they are. But he needs to show rather more respect for the judgement of women about their lives and of medical professionals about their practice.
Although he has ruled out changing the law, any suggestion of reducing the time limit on abortion is so last century. The current cross-party support for decriminalisation of abortion and for legal abortion to be provided in Northern Ireland show that most people are capable of trusting women in the 21st century. Hunt needs to catch up.