Madeleine Kearns: Now abortion is devolved, let's hear what Scots want

A recent ComRes survey, from May 2017, showed that an overwhelming majority of British citizens favour a reduction of the abortion limit.

Madeleine Kearns, guest writer for the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics

Almost two-thirds of those polled say abortion should be reduced from 24 to 20 weeks, and one fifth believe it should be lowered to 12 weeks. ComRes also found that only one per cent of those surveyed support the total decriminalisation of abortion.

The study surveyed more than 2,000 Britons and was the most extensive polling on abortion in England, Scotland and Wales in the last decade. In response to certain questions, the percentage of Scots who favoured changes in the law was higher than in England and Wales.

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For example, participants were asked whether the government should make participation in the abortion procedure mandatory for doctors. An overwhelming majority opposed this. However, whereas in England 55 per cent disagreed that doctors should be forced to act against their conscience, in Scotland it was higher at 61 per cent.

This question has significance, not only for doctors, but also for the entire medical profession. In 2014, the UK Supreme Court ruled against two Scottish midwives by deciding that they did not have the right to refuse to supervise abortions. The legal decision has since been described by the Royal College of Midwives and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service as a ‘landmark case.’

Another question asked whether the time limit for aborting a prenatal child with a disability should be equal to the 24 weeks limit in place for prenatal children without disability. Currently it is possible in the UK to abort a disabled prenatal child up to birth and the law, as it stands, has been criticised by disability campaigners as discriminatory.

While in England, 42 per cent came out in support of changing the law to introduce an equal time limit, in ­Scotland there was a majority of 53 per cent. This is very interesting, because in May 2016, Lord Shinkwin, who is disabled himself, proposed a Bill in Westminster that sought to abolish abortion on the grounds of disability, which was defeated in March of this year.

The survey also asked whether participants agreed that, ‘aborting babies because of their gender should be explicitly banned by the law.’ In England, 89 per cent thought that it should be banned, in Scotland 93 per cent agreed. This shows a real commitment to gender equality.

Sex-selective abortion has caused significant demographic imbalances in countries such as India, South Korea and China. The United Nations Population Fund estimated that, today, approximately 117 million women are ‘missing’ in Asia and Eastern Europe.

In conclusion, the ComRes findings suggest that the majority of Britons prefer restrictions on abortion. In particular, these results show that a majority in Scotland is concerned with protecting freedom of ­conscience under the law and with preventing discrimination based on disability and gender.

Since abortion has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament under the Scotland Act 2016, maybe the opinions of the majority of the Scottish people should now be basis for new considerations.

Madeleine Kearns is guest writer for the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics.