Jeremy Hunt: what a card! A row about abortion is just what the Conservative and Unionist party needs to kick-off its conference week! The MP for South West Surrey is certainly entitled to say he favours outlawing abortion outwith the first trimester; the Secretary of State for Health would have been wiser to have kept quiet. The problem is Hunt’s political judgement, not his moral compass.

Nevertheless, some of the reaction to Hunt’s comments has bordered on the hysterical. Talk of a Tory “War on Women” is as ugly as it is absurd and another example of how the witless American brand of partisanship has leaked into our political discourse. If, in some unlikely event, Britain’s abortion laws were reformed it is probable they would then be broadly comparable to those pertaining in such noted women-hating countries as Sweden and the Netherlands. So let’s not get carried away.

There are – as Dan Hodges notes – some practical reasons that make a 12 week limit (or rather, a 12 week limit that does not allow for some exceptions) problematic. Nevertheless, plenty of european countries do have 12 week limits in general with, again, exceptions in particular cases. So, again, let’s not pretend Hunt’s preferences on this “matter of conscience” are more extreme than they really are.

Moreover, since some 90% of abortion “procedures” – that is, terminations – are already conducted before the 13th week of pregnancy lowering the legal limit to 20 or even 18 weeks will not, in practice, make much difference.

This being so, you might think the argument about a relatively modest tightening of Britain’s unusually permissive abortion laws is chiefly a matter of political or ethical symbolism. You’d be right.

And, this being the case, it should also be noted that many of Hunt’s critics hold views on abortion that are vastly more extreme than those he tentatively advanced in his ill-advised interview with the Times. Consider, for instance, the view advanced by Professor Wendy Savage, a gynaecologist “who has campaigned for many years on women’s rights”:

“What we really should be doing is decriminalising abortion, making it like any other operation.”

Emphasis added. Since abortion more-or-less on demand is already legal I’m not sure what she means by “decriminalising”. I think she really meant to say “destigmatise”. But the notion that an abortion is no different from, say, removing a troublesome mole is a view that, again, lies some way outside the mainstream. It’s as “extreme” a view as anything that’s promoted by the Vatican. Indeed, the more militant pro-choicers sometimes give the impression that an abortion is a vital rite-of-passage on the road to whole and glorious womanhood.

Another problem with Hunt’s interview is that, unfortunately, it perpetuates the notion that abortion is a partisan issue. It isn’t. At least it isn’t outside Westminster. As Heresy Corner observes:

There is indeed a gender divide on the abortion debate in Britain, and it is especially stark in relation to the question of term limits. A YouGov poll in January found that of the 37% of Britons who favoured a lowering of the 24 week limit (34% supported the status quo) the majority were men. In total, twice as many women as men (49% as opposed to 24%) wanted to see a lower limit. There was also an interesting age difference: among the younger age group (18-24) support for a lower limit stood at 43%, whereas in the two older age groups it was 35%. Strikingly, support for a reduction to 20 weeks or below was highest among people who expressed a preference for Labour rather than the two other main parties – which again fits ill with the concept of a “Tory war on women”.

This gender distinction seems to be consistent. An Angus Reid poll in March found an even more dramatic difference, with 35% of men favouring a reduction below 24 weeks and 59% of women doing so. Back in 2006, a MORI poll published by the Guardian found that 47% of women wanted to lower the limit, and a further 10% would ban abortion outright.

So the issue – and the emotion it stirs – is complicated. Sensible people know that good people can disagree in good faith about these matters and do so without actually hating those who disagree with them or ascribing the worst of motives to their opponents. My own views, for what little it may be worth, are as muddled as most people’s:

Most Americans oppose partial-birth abortions, for instance. And I suspect that many of those who oppose prohibiting such procedures do so not because they consider partial-birth abortion just the same as an abortion carried out in the 12th week of pregnancy but because they fear, perhaps with good reason, that conceding anylimit on abortion (even in very rare cases) opens the way to further restrictions on abortion. An appalling procedure must be defended to protect procedures you find less appalling. This too is not an attractive thought or especially noble way of thinking.

But there is a cold logic to it nonetheless just as there’s a cold rationalism to opposing abortion exceptions even in the case of rape. Indeed, it’s the majority of us who lie between these extremes whose views are mixed or woolly or hopelessly inconsistent. (Incidentally, I commend Ross Douthat’s latest column on this.)

Again, there’s a difference between what is moral, what is legal and what is politically feasible. It is illogical to think that personhood begins at some point towards the end of the first trimester but, at least in Britain, that’s the sense – half-formed, perhaps – a plurality of the population shares. If this weren’t the case then abortions would be legal at any point in pregnancy. But they aren’t because most of us feel, intuitively that some abortions, if they were legal, would be much worse than others.

Increasingly, I suspect, we think that abortions after the point at which medical progress means the infant might have a viable chance of life outside the womb, are morally questionable. The divide between abortion and infanticide is ever blurrier.

The argument about when life actually begins has always struck me as mildly irrelevant. What matters more, surely, is that abortion terminates the possibility of life (assuming the pregnancy proceeds in full health) and that, accordingly, even those abortions carried out as early in the process as possible are, rationally speaking, different in degree not kind to those abortions most of us consider ethically abhorrent.

The law’s concerns are different. The law is concerned with regulating a practice that would, if it were illegal, be driven underground. Legal abortion makes abortion safer; it also probably makes it less rare. It’s comparable to, if also more complicated than, the arguments about drug use or prostitution.

Even if one accepts – with whatever degree of reluctance – that abortion should be legal it does not follow that all abortions, even in the first trimester, are created equal. Moreover, there’s a difference between the particular and the general. That is, an individual may have a compelling reason for aborting a fetus diagnosed with Down Syndrome; the consequences of a society-wide trend to aborting all (or almost all) such supposedly “non-perfect” fetuses are more morally troubling. (What comes next?) Something similar might be said of sex-selective abortion.

And what of repeat abortions? Approximately one third of abortion procedures in the UK are carried out on women who have previously terminated a pregnancy. The figure is reckoned to be even higher in the United States. In some cases these abortions are the result of contraceptive-failure. Often they are not.

It might be stretching the argument to claim that there are large numbers of women for whom abortion is just another form of contraception but is there a difference  – morally, not legally – between a first abortion a fifth termination? I think there must be even if I also think it’s impossible to craft laws that make this kind of distinction.

Again, the fact that something is – or should be – legal is not the same as condoning that act. There are things that can be legal but ethically dubious. One abortion might be unfortunate; repeat abortions can look more like some kind of callous carelessness. The former can be forgiven by many people (if often reluctantly) the latter circumstance is a different matter even if, again, the general trend is more horrifying than any particular individual case may be. It’s a kind of failure.

So there are extremists on both sides of these arguments even if, in general, the press (in both the UK and the USA) tends to suggest that only one side is extreme. In part that’s because there are more anti-abortion-in-all-cases campaigners than there are any-abortion-is-fine-and-what’s-your-problem? campaigners on the other. But it’s also the case that one extreme is generally considered more beyond the pale than the other.

Which, of course, is why politicians prefer to avoid talking about these issues.

Tags: Abortion, Conservatives, Jeremy Hunt, UK politics