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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 26, No. 9. 1963.

In Present Situation. . . . — Abortion should be Legal and Safe

page 5

In Present Situation. . . .

Abortion should be Legal and Safe

The most significant thing about illegal abortion is the extent to which it is practised. On this page we print some estimates of the number of pregnancies which are terminated.

It is quite clear that abortion fills a social need; if it did not it would not be performed so often. The number of women who adopt some means after conception to ensure that they do not give birth is considerable. In a democracy, at least, evidence of such widespread desire is one argument for making the process legal. There are, however, serious objections to such a step.

Firstly, no surgery is 100 per cent safe, and abortion is no exception to this rule. Any woman who undergoes such an operation, even under strictly controlled surgical conditions, faces a certain risk. For instance, a surgeon would normally have a general anaesthetic administered, and this presents a danger for a start. Then there are the complications of infection, and psychological complications which can arise later.

A Further more common and more serious objection is the contention that abortion is murder. This idea probably arises from the fact that in the later stages of development the foetus bears superficial resemblance to an independent human being. There is thus a tendency to ascribe to it qualities it does not possess; in particular that of independence. The idea that abortion is murder is difficult to sustain. At the time the operation is best performed, the foetus is an organ within the mother. It is not independent, and neither could it exist as such if it were removed from the mother.

The idea that it is wrong to interfere with the process of reproduction in such a way that some organism is destroyed can be applied to accepted practices. Contraception for example, usually causes the death of an organism that potentially can form an independent human being, but this is not usually held against it.

Is there a distinction between murder and legitimate birth control? If there is, it must be somewhat arbitrary. However, if we regard the independence of the organism as the most important criterion, we can see that nature has provided a very spectacular distinction. It is called birth. From the point of view of legislation it provides a convenient distinction between what can be justified, and what cannot.

A denial of an argument against abortion is not necessarily an argument in favour. Often the view is advanced that the real case against abortion is that it is not necessary. Those who hold this view claim that universal education in contraception and sex hygiene is a much more desirable way of preventing unwanted births. No doubt this latter idea is true. Birth control clinics should cease refusing advice to unmarried women. By doing this they would no longer be saying. "If you do not intend to remain a virgin until you marry, you must pay for it." At present they often condemn such women to the mercies of the illegal abortionist.

Schools should appoint medical officers to give comprehensive instruction in the use of birth control appliances. Parents should adopt a more open attitude towards sex, so that children do not get the idea that it is something dirty.

In a generation or two the illegal abortionist might go out of business, and the problem would be solved.

Such measures do nothing to solve the immediate problem. Must we continue to enforce laws that ensure that large numbers of women have only quacks to turn to for a serious operation? Abortion is one of the few operations in which neither doctor nor patient has any legal choice. The law prejudges the issue for them. It is also the only operation which, by the nature of the law, is usually performed by unqualified people.

The choice is not between legalised abortion or none, it is between legal or illegal abortion. We have to choose whether abortions in this country should be performed by qualified people or not, whether we wish to have them performed under modern hospital conditions or with unsterile, unsuitable apparatus in unsterile, unsuitable places.

We must at least ensure that the decision is taken in the first place by the woman who must bear the consequences.