There is a range of issues which are of particular concern to those working in the area of men’s and boys’ rights.  Some of these are of greater prominence than others: we might identify, for example, parental alienation, male genital mutilation and male suicide as matters which have come to the fore in recent years to define the debate on male issues.  I thought I would discuss some of these in an occasional series of posts, beginning, for no particular reason other than an alphabetical one, with abortion.

I certainly supported a woman’s right to choose, but to my mind the time to choose was before, not after the fact.

Ann B. Ross [1]

In 2015 in England and Wales, one hundred and eighty-five thousand, eight hundred and twenty-four (185,824) abortions were carried out.[2]  Ninety-eight percent of them were paid for by you, the taxpayer.  Since abortion was legalised in 1967, more foetuses have been killed than the combined populations of Scotland and Wales.

You do not need to be a pro-life zealot to find these figures disturbing.

The state-approved killing of a viable child must never be anything less than a very big deal: it is not just, as some would have it, a minor medical procedure.  Some people will always find abortion monstrous, and it does the rest of us no harm to feel grave unease: it keeps us forever re-evaluating society’s moral boundaries.  Even its advocates and apologists wrap abortion up in awkward euphemisms: it is “choice” – a distasteful term in the circumstances – or “contraception”, which manifestly it is not, being deployed after a confirmed conception, or “birth control”, or, worst of all, “planned parenthood” when it is not planned and is the antithesis of parenthood.  Meanwhile, a foetus is a “pregnancy” or “the products of conception”, but never a living being.

It should never be forgotten that abortion is a huge deal for the mother, too.  She may have agonised over it for weeks; she may have been coerced into the procedure by a partner, or relatives, or the abortion provider.  It might rob her of her only chance to have a family; it may be something she regrets for the rest of her life.

It remains taboo to describe what actually happens in an abortion, and this makes informed debate difficult.  After about 12 weeks, medical abortion (drug induced) or standard vacuum-aspiration – in which a tube is inserted and the foetus sucked out into a collecting jar – are not always practicable.  The foetus must first be dismembered within the uterus, most parts are then removed with forceps, but the skull, spine and pelvis may need to be crushed prior to removal.

Once legal, abortion becomes politicised: John Holdren, President Barack Obama‘s science and technology advisor, believed that an optimal population could be maintained through rigid state control of the twin tools of insemination and abortion.  Too large a population?  Raise the number of forced abortions or sterilise the population by putting drugs in the water supply.  Too small?  Increase the number of permitted inseminations, [3]

Although free and easy association of the sexes might be tolerated in such a society, responsible parenthood ought to be encouraged and illegitimate childbearing could be strongly discouraged.  One way to carry out this disapproval might be to insist that all illegitimate babies be put up for adoption… If a single mother really wished to keep her baby, she might be obliged to go through adoption proceedings and demonstrate her ability to support and care for it… It would even be possible to require pregnant single women to marry or have abortions, perhaps as an alternative to placement for adoption, depending on the society.

Is state-enforced abortion too much for you to stomach?  How about this suggestion of “after-birth abortion” from Australian philosophers Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, [4]

[W]hen circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible. … [W]e propose to call this practice ‘after-birth abortion’, rather than ‘infanticide,’ to emphasize that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable with that of a fetus … rather than to that of a child.  Therefore, we claim that killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where abortion would be.  Such circumstances include cases where the newborn has the potential to have an (at least) acceptable life, but the well-being of the family is at risk.

The basis of such a proposal is that the cut-off point at which abortion ceases to be acceptable is invariably arbitrary and not based on sound medical principles – if it can be just before birth, why should it not be just after?  How long after is not specified.  Abortion will always remain a controversial and touchy topic: an absolute right or an absolute wrong; a vehicle upon which the progressive or liberal can indulge in virtue-signalling.

Prior to 1967, the law on abortion was embodied in the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 (the re-enactment of an earlier 1837 Act), Section 58 of which criminalised the procuring of a miscarriage, and Section 59 the supply of poisons or instruments intended to cause a miscarriage, regardless of whether or not the woman was actually with child.  This law still applies and abortion remains unlawful unless procured according to the precise terms introduced by the 1967 Act.

The Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 criminalised the killing of a child capable of being born alive (set at 28 weeks), closing the lacuna which permitted a child to be killed during the moment of birth, although the first prosecution under this act was not until 2007; it allowed abortion where the mother’s life was in danger.  The result of these laws was that up to 50 women a year were dying from “septic and incomplete abortion”; many more were hospitalised following complications from criminal and self-induced abortion.

In 1938, Dr Aleck Bourne based his defence on the Act when he was acquitted of performing an illegal abortion on a suicidal 14-year-old, gang-raped by five Royal Horse Guards officers; a Roman Catholic doctor at St Thomas’ Hospital had refused, on the unlikely ground that she might be carrying a future prime minister.[5]  The case set a precedent, extending the defence to abortion to include “mental and physical wreck”, but only if a psychiatrist consented.

Although reform had been recommended by an inter-departmental committee before the war,[6] Liberal MP David Steel’s Private Member’s Bill was the eighth attempt, and its passage had been eased by bills introduced in the Lords in 1965 and 1966 by Lord Silkin.  The intention was to clarify rather than change the existing law; it was partly inspired by the thalidomide catastrophe of 1957-61 and enabled by the development of vacuum curettage to provide a safe technology.

The 1967 Act permitted abortion up to twenty-eight weeks to avoid injury to the physical or mental health of the woman or of her children, and up to full term to save the mother’s life, to prevent grave permanent injury to her physical or mental health, or if the child was likely to be severely physically or mentally handicapped.  The Act treated abortion as a purely medical matter between a woman and her doctors.  Aleck Bourne, who had become a founding member of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, warned that the Act would lead to the “greatest holocaust in history”; [7] supporters argued that women would only seek abortions in extreme circumstances.  The 1929 Act continued to prevent the abortion of a child “capable of being born alive”, a definition which depended on judges’ interpretation of current medical science.

Such a termination became lawful only if conducted by a medical practitioner and if “two registered medical practitioners [were] of the opinion” it was justified.  It is nearly always considered safer for a mother to terminate a pregnancy than to allow it to continue; complications are rare, with 294 in England and Wales in 2015 and only one death.[8]  That compares with a relatively high UK life-time risk of death in childbirth of 1 in 6,900.[9]

Despite the late limit, it was always envisaged that most abortions would take place as early as possible in pregnancy; many countries confine it to the first three months, unless the foetus is severely disabled or the mother’s life is at risk.  Medical technology continues to develop: the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 reduced the time limit to twenty-four weeks; by 2005, 20 to 35% of foetuses born at 23 weeks were surviving and 50 to 70% born at 24 to 25 weeks.[10]  Amillia Taylor was born in 2006 at 21 weeks and 6 days gestation; as at 2013 she was in kindergarten with some developmental delays.[11]  Despite campaigns to reduce the limit to 22, 20 or even 12 weeks, it remains at 24 for now.

No doubt in the 1960s, the drafters of the legislation considered the safeguards robust, but by 2014 doctors in 54% of cases were signing off on abortions despite never having seen the women: the safeguards were not working.  In January, a government consultation proposed to remove these safeguards entirely, as ministers drew up draft guidance to enable a woman to have an abortion without needing to consult a doctor.[12]

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 also decoupled the 1929 Act from the 1967 Act, allowing abortion to be carried out up to full term; the unintended effect of this change was foreseen too late and an attempt to overturn it was unsuccessful; the law now permitted a child born, for example, with a hare lip or club foot to be destroyed during birth.  Between 2002 and 2011, there were 26 such abortions.[13]  In 2004, police chose not to prosecute two doctors who had approved the illegal abortion at 28 weeks of a foetus suffering from a cleft palate.[14]  The Reverend Joanna Jepson, who had herself been born with a more serious facial deformity and has a brother with Down syndrome, obtained leave to challenge the decision by judicial review.  She disputed that a cleft palate constituted a “serious handicap” under Section 1(d) of the Act – the law does not define the term.  Her challenge was unsuccessful.

Abortion on demand has become one of those measures which represent the touchstone of a progressive and liberal society; no one but a zealot would want a return to the grim days before 1967, but that doesn’t stop many people feeling uncomfortable.

Sophie Walker, the leader of the recently-formed Women’s Equality Party, has called for the complete decriminalising of “self-induced” abortion and for an end to its inclusion within the “Victorian” Offences Against the Person Act 1861.  “Any denial of reproductive rights,” she maintained, meaning the right of a woman to kill her unborn child for any reason whatsoever, “is a form of violence against women”.[15]

The irony of this is that it would allow a woman to induce her own abortion – at any stage of foetal development – or allow her to procure it from a neighbour or backstreet practitioner, thus making things very much more dangerous for women again and undoing decades of reform.  The Act’s antiquity – dating to 1837, the year Victoria came to the throne – merely demonstrates how well-drafted it was.  Few would argue that an amateur procuring an abortion by means of home-brewed potions or a rusty coat-hanger and causing poisoning, infection, haemorrhaging or death should escape justice.

Exactly who is Walker seeking to protect?  Who are these people currently being prosecuted for unlawful abortion whom she thinks should be ignored by the law?  Prosecutions of women for unlawful abortion are rare: in December 2015, Natalie Towers was imprisoned for two-and-a-half years for aborting her 32-week-old foetus using poison she had bought on the Internet;[16] Sarah Catt was jailed for eight years in 2012 for aborting her full-term foetus,[17] though her sentence was later reduced to three-and-a-half years.[18]

More common are prosecutions of men for seeking to procure their partners’ miscarriages.  In 2011, father of two Dr Edward Erin spiked his lover, Bella Prowse’s, drinks with poison after she refused an abortion.  He was jailed for 6 years (subsequently extended to 8[19]) and struck off the medical register.  Prowse gave birth to a healthy boy.[20]

In 2013, Richard Hallam was jailed for 10 years for seeking – unsuccessfully – to cause his girlfriend to abort their child.  His crime was discovered after he was arrested for attacking another woman with a hammer.[21]

In the worst such case, Mohammad Karrar from Eritrea, leader of the notorious Oxford sex-gang which preyed on pre-teen and teenage girls, was jailed for life with a 20-year minimum tariff – also in 2013 – for crimes including rape, child prostitution, sexual trafficking and procuring a miscarriage.[22]  When the girl with whom he had regularly been having sex since she was 11 became pregnant, he told her she should have been more responsible, gave her drugs and took her to Reading where a backstreet abortion was performed with a hooked instrument.  She bled for a long time afterwards.

Are these the sort of men the Equality for Women Party wants to protect?

The ease with which an abortion may be obtained troubles the Justice for Men and Boys party (J4MB), “the only political party in the English-speaking world campaigning for the human rights of men and boys”.  In their manifesto for the 2015 General Election, they published alarming figures showing that the 1967 Act was being widely misused.[23]  They drew attention to the irony that medical personnel can fight to save the life of a premature baby while others in the same hospital are at work killing a foetus at the same stage of development.  They proposed that a child’s legal rights – which currently commence fairly arbitrarily at the moment of birth – should commence earlier.  They demonstrated that the vast majority of abortions were allowed on the basis of potentially causing harm to the mother’s mental health, and very rarely on the basis of causing harm to her physical health.

Using figures from 2012, they showed that in England and Wales, 185,122 abortions had been carried out, of which 180,008 were performed to protect the mother’s mental health – that’s 97%.  The most recent statistics, for 2015, show that 98% were mental health abortions; only 96 of 185,824 were performed to protect the mother’s physical health.[24]  Where the foetus is healthy and there is no risk to the mother’s physical health, these interventions are often referred to as “social abortions”; pro-life campaigners want to limit them to 16 weeks.[25]

The reason for emphasising these figures is that this represents, in all but name, “abortion on demand”.  As J4MB confirmed, there is “no evidence to support the thesis that abortion reduces the risk to mental health of women with an unwanted pregnancy”.  They cited a 2011 report by The National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health which stated, “The rate of mental health problems for women with an unwanted pregnancy were the same whether they had an abortion or gave birth”.[26]  A 2013 report published by the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry concluded, [27]

There is no available evidence to suggest that abortion has therapeutic effects in reducing the mental health risks of unwanted or unintended pregnancy.

Justice for Men and Boys, however, missed a couple of tricks which may have worked to their advantage: there are clear links between abortion and fatherlessness, and fatherless girls are 2.5 times more likely to become pregnant in their teens.[28]  Despite recent falls, the teenage pregnancy rate in the UK is still the highest in Western Europe and four times higher than the average.[29]  Half of these pregnancies end in abortion: in 2013 in England and Wales there were 24,306 conceptions amongst girls under the age of eighteen, of which 50.7% ended in abortion.[30]

The other issue which I am surprised they neglected to mention is that, under the Abortion Act 1967, men have no right in law either to insist on the abortion of children they don’t want or to prevent the abortion of children they do want; there is also no requirement when a mother seeks an abortion to secure the father’s consent.  This arises out of the interpretation of abortion as a private matter between a woman and her doctors.  While we can have little time for men who seek the abortion of a child in order to conceal an affair or even a crime, it is hard not to feel some compassion for a man who desperately tries to prevent the killing of his unborn child.

There are three relevant precedents: in Paton v BPS,[31] a father, William Paton, argued that he had a right to a say in what happened to his child and that the mother was seeking the abortion out of vindictiveness in the context of a failing marriage.  The Court disagreed; the law is clear: a foetus has no human right to life before it is born; there is no legal mechanism by which a father might prevent its abortion.  Paton took his case to the European Court of Human Rights and again the Court rejected the notion that a father has the right to be consulted.[32]

In C v S,[33] Robert Carver, president of the Oxford University Pro-Life group, failed to persuade the judges that abortion would be a crime under s.1(b) of the Infant Life (Preservation) Act, given that the foetus was at a stage where it could survive outside the womb: such a prosecution could be brought only by the Director of Public Prosecutions and not by the father.  Nevertheless, the pressure of the ensuing publicity forced the mother to abandon the termination and Carver raised his daughter himself.

In 2001, married father of two, Stephen Hone, went to the High Court in a bid to stop his next door neighbour, Claire Hansell, aborting their child.  He argued that only one doctor had been consulted instead of the two required by law and claimed a “partial victory” when the clinic said it would perform further medical checks before carrying out the termination, but Hansell’s solicitors reported she had already aborted the child at another clinic.[34]

So, should men have a say in abortion?  In Ohio in 2014 a Bill was introduced, based on the principle that if a man is to be held financially responsible for a child, he should have a say in whether or not that child is aborted.[35]  The Bill would have required a woman seeking termination to provide a list of putative fathers who would then be tested to confirm paternity; the man identified as the father would have to give his written consent before the termination could go ahead.  The provision would have been protected by robust legal safeguards.

In Missouri, another Bible-belt state, a similar Bill was launched requiring a father’s consent before an abortion could be performed;[36] the response from pro-abortion campaigners was predictable and they sought to turn it into a debate about rape (which was specifically excluded from the Bill).

Proponents of introducing some level of involvement for fathers accept that it would not be possible for a father to prevent an abortion; anti-feminist journalist Neil Lyndon wrote in 1992, [37]

Women who choose to have an abortion might be a good deal better off if their men were required to endorse and support their decision.  If the man agrees, the burden of the decision will be shared.  If the man does not agree, he ought to be provided with a means to say so.  His opinion ought, at least, to be registered and recorded.

Needless to say, the sisterhood was outraged: a man has no business expressing any views at all on abortion.  On Woman’s Hour, staunch feminist Jenni Murray told Lyndon, “A woman’s rights over her own body must be indisputable.”[38]

This standard argument might apply when an abortion is requested to protect a woman’s physical health, but most are procured to protect her mental health, and that invites a comparison with the effect the abortion will have on the man’s.  Is a man’s mental health of lesser consequence?

Studies into men’s reactions to abortion are rare; they have found that men experience high levels of anxiety, grief, guilt and helplessness; they have difficulty concentrating and confusion about their role in a society which expects them to care for and support their children while denying them any ability to care for them before birth.  They feel under pressure to be stoical in support of their partners’ decision while suffering profoundly themselves.[39], [40]  There is often a profound sense of loss, particularly amongst men who disagreed with the decision.

Abortion often leads to sexual and trust difficulties and relationships often do not survive, with a failure rate between 25 [41] and 70%.[42]  Many men were profoundly troubled at the thought that they had helped end a life they had set in motion.[43]  Abortion exposes the huge power imbalance between men and women; one study found that fathers lagged behind parents, family and friends in the decision-making process: the father was the person most likely to oppose the decision and lest likely to influence it, with only 28% supporting it.[44]

Some argue for a “male abortion”: the right of a father to relinquish any legal right or responsibility over a child he has not wanted but which the mother will not abort.  Marcus Nilsen, chairman of the youth wing of Sweden’s Liberal Party (which also courts headlines by advocating incest and necrophilia), says, “men should have an equal right to opt out of parenting and choose whether or not to become a parent”.[45]  Such a right would extend to the 18th week of pregnancy and be irreversible.  The idea is actually a feminist one, based on giving women a right to raise children without the interference of an indifferent father.

So, what of the future?  It seems probable that the law will continue to take into account developments in medical technology and that the time limit will periodically decrease, though pressure from the “pro-choice” lobby will likely force a compromise – perhaps to 16 weeks; the current limit is based on a situation that obtained a quarter of a century ago.  We might also expect to see some attempt to curb “social” abortions.  However, it is unlikely, in my view, that we shall see any greater involvement of fathers in abortion, and that may well be why J4MB are not including it in their campaigning.

All pendulums swing only so far.  The huge widening of acceptance enabled by the 1967 Act has prepared the way for acceptance in other areas of legislation: what was unthinkable yesterday is seriously considered today and becomes routine practice tomorrow.  Progress made on abortion may eventually make the legalisation of euthanasia more acceptable; it might encourage some to consider infanticide, which is becoming a popular discussion in some quarters.  Legalising abortion, even in the restricted way we have, undermines the status of the human embryo so that some call this bundle of cells, packed with human potential, a “parasite”, a mere blob of “jelly”, “foetal waste”.

But one day the pendulum will swing the other way – recent advances in imaging technology which enable us to see the developing embryo in three dimensions or as a video, moving in real time, show us a creature which is recognisably human and aware at a much earlier stage of development than we had previously imagined: pressure will also grow to restrict abortion further.

Ultimately, abortion is a failure.  It is the failure of birth control.  It is the failure of family planning.  It is the failure of public policy.  It is our failure of us as humans.

[1] Ross, A. B. (2002). Miss Julia Throws a Wedding. Penguin.

[2] Department of Health. (2016). Abortion Statistics, England and Wales: 2015.

[3] Ehrlich, P. R., Ehrlich, A. H., & Holdren, J. P. (1977). Ecoscience: population, resources, environment.

[4] Guibilini, A., & Minerva, F. (2011). After-birth abortion: why should the baby live? Journal of Medical Ethics.

[5] Engel, J. (2004). Abortion Law Reform. Retrieved from http://www.cmf.org.uk.

[6] Birkett, W. N., & Thurtle, D. (1939). Report of the Interdeparmental Committee on Abortion. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

[7] Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. (1994). Love your unborn neighbour. London.

[8] Op. Cit., Department of Health.

[9] Save the Children. (2013). Surviving the First Day: state of the world’s mothers 2013. Save the Children.

[10] Wikipedia. (2016). Fetal Viability. Retrieved from en.wikipedia.org.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Department of Health. (2014). Guidance in Relation to Requirements of the Abortion Act 1967. London.

[13] Bates, C. (2011, July 05). Revealed: The thousands of pregnancies aborted for ‘abnormalities’ including cleft palates and Down’s syndrome. The Daily Mail.

[14] Jepson v The Chief Constable of West Mercia Police Constabulary, [2003] EWHC 3318 (High Court 2003).

[15] McVeigh, T. (2016, November 20). Victorian abortion law ‘breaches human rights’. The Observer.

[16] Spillett, R., & Brooke, C. (2015, December 17). The Daily Mail. Mother who forced a miscarriage when she was over 32 weeks pregnant by taking poison because she ‘couldn’t deal with the stress’ is jailed for two and a half years .

[17] BBC News. (2012, September 17). Sarah Catt jailed for full-term abortion of baby. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news.

[18] BBC News. (2013, June 12). Sarah Catt’s jail term for full-term abortion reduced. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news.

[19] BBC News. (2012, June 15). ‘Poison doctor’ Edward Erin jail term is extended. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news.

[20] BBC News. (2011, June 28). ‘Poison doctor’ Edward Erin struck off for abortion bid. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news.

[21] Hills, S. (2013, October 30). Cheating boyfriend jailed for trying to abort his unborn child by giving his pregnant partner miscarriage-inducing drugs. The Daily Mail.

[22] R v Akhtar Dogar, Anjum Dogar, Kamar Jamil, Mohammed Karrar, Bassam Karrar (Central Criminal Court June 27, 2013).

[23] Buchanan, M. (2014, December 28). General Election Manifesto: 2015. Justice for Men and Boys.

[24] Op. Cit., Department of Health.

[25] Argent, V. (2008, May 17). Why this abortion doctor wants to see time limits reduced to 16 weeks. The Daily Telegraph.

[26] National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health. (2011). Induced Abortion and Mental Health: a systematic review of the mental health outcomes of induced abortion, including their prevalence and associated factors. London: Academy of Medical Royal Colleges.

[27] Fergusson, D. M., Horwood, L. J., & Boden, J. M. (2013). Does abortion reduce the mental health risks of unwanted or unintended pregnancy? A re-appraisal of the evidence. Christchurch, New Zealand: Department of Psychological Medicine, University of Otago, Christchurch.

[28] Allen, I., Dowling, S., & Rolfe, H. (1998). Teenage mothers: housing and household change, ESRC Research Results [Population and Household Change Research Programme], no. 10. Oxford: Oxford Brookes University.

[29] Health & Social Care Information Centre. (2013). Hospital Episode Statistics: NHS Maternity Statistics 2012-13.

[30] Office for National Statistics. (2015). Conceptions in England and Wales, 2013.

[31] Paton v British Pregnancy Advisory Service Trustees, [1978] 2 All ER 987 (Queen’s Bench Division 1978).

[32] Paton v UK, [1980] EHRR 408 (European Court of Human Rights 1980).

[33] C v S, [1987] 2 WLR 1108, 1 All ER 1230 (Queen’s Bench Division 1987).

[34] Gillan, A. (2001, March 31). Sad tale of an affair that ended and an abortion row that goes on and on. The Guardian.

[35] Lyndon, N. (2014, May 28). Abortion: why aren’t men allowed a say? Daily Telegraph.

[36] Wetzstein, C. (2014, December 30). Missouri bill to require father’s consent on abortion revives men’s rights issue. Washington Times.

[37] Lyndon, N. (1992). No More Sex War. Sinclair-Stevenson Ltd.

[38] Op. Cit., Lyndon, N. (2014).

[39] Gordon, R.A. & Kilpatrick, C. (1977). A program of group counseling for men who accompany women seeking legal abortions. Community Mental Health Journal, 13, 291-295.

[40] Coyle, C.T. (1997). Forgiveness intervention with postabortion men. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 65, (6), 1042-1046.

[41] Shostak, A. & McLouth, G (1984). Men and abortion: Lessons, Losses, and Love. New York: Praeger

[42] Milling, E. (1975, April). The men who wait. Woman’s Life, 48-89, 69-71.

[43] Op. Cit., Shostak, A. & McLouth, G

[44] Ajzenstat, J., E. Cassidy, E., Carter, E., & Bierling, G. (1994). Going It Alone; Unplanned single motherhood in Canada. deVeber Institute.

[45] RT News. (2016, March 06). Legal ‘male abortion’ on table in Sweden thanks to Liberal Party’s youth wing. Retrieved from http://www.rt.com.

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