Monday, July 05, 2010

24 weeks

It's been great to see a wide range of support of Steve Chadwick's legislation. But one area that has seen less support is the proposed time limit of 24 weeks. There are physilogical arguments about fetal pain and development and viability, but those aren't the arguments I want to make.* I want to go back to first principles.

Those who are uncertain about a 24 week time limit make arguments like Dita De Boni did in the Herald:

But there was one part of Steve's bill that had me stumped. Why is she proposing that the timeframe for abortions be moved to 24 weeks, when currently it is stated in law that no abortions can be performed on women after the 20th week of pregnancy, except to save a woman's life?
A similar issue was raised in a comment thread by Ms P
This may risk setting of some kind of comment bomb, especially in light of the comments in earlier posts:( Also, I've never been pregnant so acknowledge my ignorance about the timelines for obtaining an abortion, but 20-24 weeks seems quite advanced in the pregnancy to be accessing abortion. What do people think of the criteria listed for the bill?

There is a story that gives one answer to this question. In 2007, a woman with pre-existing heart waited 15 weeks for a heart examination once she got pregnant. In the twenty first week of her pregnancy she was told that she had heart problems. She asked for an abortion, but was told that it was too late for an abortion, as the risk of her having health problems wasn't bit enough. The baby was delivered dead by caesarean section when she was thirty weeks better, and the woman died four hours later.

The best person to make decisions about what is acceptable risk during pregnancy is the woman who is pregnant.

It's really important that people don't give into their own 'icky' response when it comes to late-term abortion. Yes the pregnancy is quite far advanced at 22 weeks - you know who knows that better than anyone else? The woman who is pregnant, has a rapidly growin fetus inside that has started moving and kicking.

Unless you are absolutely anti-abortion (and very few people are, which is why you get rape and incest exceptions in most legislation),** then you believe there should be a decision maker who weighs up the pros and cons of having an abortion - balances the life stage that the foetus is at, the risks of the procedure, and the desires of the pregnant woman. I think some people slip into wanting to be that decision maker themselves - "Well 23 weeks is very advanced. I'm not saying you can't have an abortion then, but you better have a very good reason" That's the logic that resulted in our current law - the state took the position that some abortions were necessary, but that special neutral doctors were the only people to decide whether or not an individual abortion is OK.

But it's a terrible solution. Because one of two things happen, sometimes the gatekeepers abdicate their role as gatekeepers, as Certifying Consultants have largely done in the current environement, and allow women to make their own decisions. In which case the decision-makers are just meaningless hoops, that take money, time and energy for women to jump through. Or they act as gatekeepers, and women are forced to remain pregnant, and sometimes women die.

There is a simple, elegant, solution to all this. Accept that there needs to be a decision maker who balances many different issues, including the stage of pregnancy, but agree that the best person to be that decision maker is the pregnant woman.

This is what I meant about holding the line. Dita De Boni gave a spurious argument that currently 0.5% of abortions happen after 20 weeks. Leaving aside that's because some women are denied them, should we abandon those 80 women just because they're a minority? Just because it makes it messier? Should we say - of course most women shouldn't have to use their resources to jump through administrative hoops to end a pregnancy - but if there's only a few of them why don't we just ignore them and focus on everyone else.

The core argument about abortion is the same at week 8 as it is at week 24. If you trust women to make their own decisions, then you trust women to make their own decisions at any stage in pregnancy.

* Now I should be clear that I don't actually support the 24 week limit - I believe that women are as capable of making their own decisions at week 25 as they are in week 24. I will talk later about why I can support this bill anyway, but there are some aspects of existing law that I want to discuss first.

** Except New Zealand's of course, because our MPs thought that if you could get an abortion if you were raped would lie about being raped to get an abortion.


  1. Exactly so, Maia. Not only are women capable of making decisions for themselves, at any stage of pregnancy, but to tell them that they may not have an abortion after a certain magical line has been passed, is to tell them that they are children who are incapable of making moral decisions.

  2. should we abandon those 80 women just because they're a minority? ... if there's only a few of them why don't we just ignore them and focus on everyone else.

    How about "there's only a few of them, it won't cost us much to offer significant assistance to someone who is in such trouble that they want to abort that late. They're the highest risk category, so they need the most help"?

    I'm thinking an ex gratia payment of a couple of grand to cover the costs and time required. Also, because winding up anyone who says "it's only 80 women a year, and most of them won't die (so it doesn't matter)" is a public service. It's probably not an argument we really want start, but as a response to anyone making the counterargument I like it a lot.

  3. What puzzles me about the abortion regulations in the UK and similar legal environments is that abortions are often permitted after the generally-stated time limit if the foetus is found to have a significant disability. Being born at 24 weeks will cause significant disabilities.

    This is entirely aside from the concerns that PWD have raised with this policy, but dude, can we please have some consistency?

  4. Anonymous5:44 pm

    As far as I understand it, the Law also allows abortion after 20 weeks if the mothers life is in danger.
    Though, all efforts should be made to save both mother and child.
    The story you have mentioned may have more information that clarifies the situation further.

  5. Anonymous8:23 pm

    Hey there. Great blog, great post. Here is another story. I once knew a teenage Maori girl. She became pregnant and her family put so much pressure on her to keep the baby that she initially agreed and then under huge duress finally found the strength to stand up to her family (who were literally begging her to keep the baby) and get the abortion that she wanted all along. in her second trimester.