Abortion: Jeremy Hunt may be stupid, that doesn't mean he's wrong –

6 October 2012

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.

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  • rndtechnologies786

    Good view.

  • Sue

    Jeremy Hunt is entitled to his opinion but as the newly appointed Minster for Health he makes the statement appear as government policy rather than his view. Why wasn’t he sounding off about abortion when he was Culture minister? I’m tired of men commenting about a procedure about which they can have no personal experience. No sane woman would opt for a “late” abortion but, until abortion is available without rigmarole and others’ uncalled-for opinions, there will always be abortions after 24 weeks and always should be.

  • Kevin


  • Kevin

    It’s as “extreme” a view as anything that’s promoted by the Vatican

    The Catholic position is entirely logical. You do not kill an innocent person even if you have determined that they may be a danger to others. Insanity, for example, is a complete defence to a charge of murder. While the death penalty may be justified on the basis of removing a proved threat from society, you cannot legitimately execute an insane person.

    In such situations you simply have to learn how to cope with the problem.

  • MikeF

    Aren’t you ‘pontificating’ yourself a bit there or is the expression of an opinion on this subject only ‘pontification’ if it is an opinion with which you disagree?

  • Eddie

    Like most Brits, I am not against abortion per se (the self-righteous hypocritical oppressive puritanism of the debate in America sickens me) – but that does not mean abortion is a wonderful thing that should be allowed at any time of pregnancy.
    What I do always notice is how those leftwingers – who always profess to helping the vulnerable (ie those in poverty etc) – seem to forget all that when debating abortion.
    What on earth is more vulnerable that an unborn child?
    This debate has moved on thanks to new technology that means a foetus ‘born’ (ie miscarried) at 24 weeks (maybe also 20 weeks or less) can survive, for example. But then some dreaful disabilities are not seen in scans until later on: maybe we need a new law with a proviso here?
    Technology means babies born who should be allowed to die and kept alive for a few painful weeks or months too.
    All very difficult. But the outrage expressed by the usual bullies whenever controversial subjects are debated is silly, stupid and wrong.
    We need a debate on all this.
    We also need to use our common sense about it – and ignore the nutters in America whose dumb thinking on this should stay on that side of the pond – which does not mean of course that women should be permitted to have abortions up to 9 months, which is what feminists want, or that mean should have no say in their unborn children’s fate. An unborn child is NOT ‘ a woman’s body’ – it is a new body. The question is, when to set the time limit…

  • Bob

    No mention of Post Birth Abortion. The latest bit of Maxists maddness from the Good Ideas Club. They will fight any attempt to reduce the time limit tooth and nail

  • David Lindsay

    Like Maria Miller before him, Jeremy Hunt has said nothing more than that he himself would vote for a backbench amendment lowering the abortion time limit, though not under the catch-all “special circumstances” for which Margaret Thatcher legalised it up to birth. There is no story here. Would that there were. But there isn’t.

    Speaking of Thatcher, the 12-week time limits on abortion elsewhere in Western Europe (where there is not an outright ban, as there was in Great Britain for the first generation of our own National Health Service, and as there almost still is alongside the NHS in Northern Ireland) are due to the consensus between, upon and around Christian Democracy and Social Democracy, once the twin pillars of One Nation Toryism, and now once again, as historically, the twin pillars of One Nation Labour.

    What is essentially that consensus can still be said to unite the four or five major parties in Northern Ireland when it comes down to practical, day-to-day policy-making. Whereas post-Thatcher and post-Blair Britain is like the United States since the dismantlement of the New Deal: dependent on abortion, among other evils, for the maintenance of the underlying and overarching evil that is our economic system.

    A system the superiority, or even the self-evidence, of which was disputed by no major party between the death of the staunchly pro-life John Smith and the election of Ed Miliband, who is no pro-lifer himself, but who is no sectarian enemy of such strands of Labourism, either. His relationship with, among others, his party’s social conservatives is very much as Smith’s relationship was with his party’s economic Left and with its Eurosceptics, to neither of which he belonged, but neither of which he sought to alienate or exclude.

    Listen to the silence from the Shadow Health Secretary, Andy Burnham, practising
    Catholic, Hero of Hillsborough, working-class boy made good, and Yvette Cooper’s potential nemesis in any future Leadership Election that they might still be young enough to contest.

  • maurice12brady

    Truly a stupid hunt! — Country on the brink of closure so he can now add this wheeze to gay marriage & financial relief for despots — should be a good conference.

  • David Barnett

    He’s not stupid and he’s not wrong.

  • james102

    A recent survey supports your view.59% of women from memory.

    • Eddie

      Women always tend to be more judgemental, conservative, and religious than men – and in every developed country except the USA (which has religious voting really), most women vote for right-wing parties.
      Someone tell the leftie feminists that, coz they really don’t seem to realise it! And if they do acknowledge it, they blame men (and the ‘patriarchy’) for brainwashing women to think like that too – which is a typical victim feminism.
      The truth is, evolution made women child-bearers, carers and mothers – and that is why their emotions are always on, and they oppose abortion more than men: it’s innate and hard-wired.

  • james102

    Is there any evidence that the result of more sex education
    is fewer unwanted pregnancies?

    • mark_dowling

      Compare teen pregnancy rates in southern/red US states (high, except Utah) with blue ones that tend to have more sex ed (lower). Saw a chart on it just the other day – Slate maybe?

    • FF42

      Yes. But like other forms of education it’s not always effective. Almost all teenagers avoid becoming pregnant. Those that do are the badly educated ones.

      • Eddie

        Whereas those girls who live in south Europeans who get no sex education very rarely get pregnant because they do not get drunk and slag it about like so many British girls.
        It is not PC to say it but it’s true: the feminist girlpower drive allow girls the right to be drunken sluts – just like the worst of boys – has cause dthis problem in the first place.
        A bit more fear and a bit more modesty in girls is how to drive down the pregancy rate: and this is the way things are in countries like France, Italy, Greece etc. No-one is arguing for the Taliban here. But the way girls here are seen as somehow abnormal if they don’t get drunk and offer themselves for sex after the age of 13 is pretty damn sick – and it is a product of feminism and irrepronsible liberalism.
        Males and females are not the same: the mantra of PC sex education is not based in the reality of biological fact.

        • FF42

          It is true that teenagers in the UK are much more likely to be sexually active than their counterparts in Southern Europe – indeed than anywhere else in Europe. This doesn’t correlate fully into fewer pregnancies. Southern Europe is generally average for adolescent pregnancies, while Scandinavia and the Netherlands are below average.

          I am certainly in favour of encouraging abstinence but it is palpably false to claim that abstinence is the only way to prevent pregnancy. If teenagers ignore you,as they do in their millions, that advice is not helpful. In every country many more teenagers are sexually active than fall pregnant.

          I think it’s better to have a good sex education programme than not to have one. Incidentally, the sex education programme in France is a lot more rigorous than any in the UK.

          • Eddie

            In the UK we have a culture of single parent and unstable families (girls from them start sex earlier) plus a general sexualised feminist culture which seems to encouarge girls to do what the F they want – literally.
            Having lived in mainland European countries and visited almost all of them (and taught students from most of them too) I can tell you with some confidence that other countries are not like this. In France a gilr is not proud to be a drunken slag; in the south of Europe, there is – rightly – a fear of a girl losing her reputation and staying a virgin: if only we had a bit more of that here!
            The key is, frankly, to change the behaviour of girls – but of course the politically correct sex education industry prefers to promote socalled ‘equality’ which encourages girls to sleep around really.
            You don’t seem to realise that in many other countries – as in the south of Europe – there is little or no sex education, and no, girls are generally NOT sexually active at young ages.
            I did NOT claim that abstinence is the only way to avoid pregnancy, so please stop putting words into my mouth. Also, what you say about France is piffle: the French are very conservative and girls juist do not get drunk and slag it about there. That is a peculiarly British problem.
            And purlease, stop your typical worship of what happens in Scandinavia and the Netherlands – from my travels, I would say we need to be a bit more like the south Europeans (the preganancy rates there are largely gypsies actually, and ordinary Greek and Italian girls do NOT get drunk and shag aged 13 as in the UK).
            In short: you seem to be parroting what you have read, rather than speaking for real life experience, which is why I hold my opinions. You are not unusual in that, but really, we should not ape Sweden in this or anything else.
            We need girls here to have a bit more shame and fear of getting pregnant – that was a good thing, actually. But then, we have so many single parent families with girls who have no dads, and that has been shown to make puberty start sooner and make girls more promiscuous. How to change that?

            • FF42

              I believe I addressed your other points in my previous comment, but I would like to be clear that I did not put words in your mouth and that I think sex education should talk about abstinence, to make clear to youngsters that they are in charge of their own bodies and that includes saying “no”.

              • Eddie

                OK, accepted – but you are wrong about what you say about Southern Europe. I have lived there and can tell you that girls just do not get publicly drunk and slag it about – for fear of the shame that would cause. Most who get pregnant there young are gypsies or victims of rape.
                Your praise of Holland and Scandinavia is typical of what I hear all the time; what you don’t realise is that local cultural factors – a religious heritage for example, a collective-minded culture – is why their rates are low-ish.
                Would having no sex education at all make the pregnancy rate here rise? Or go down (pardon the pun)? Sex education is an industry and of course those working in it will say how it’s needed – but I am not convinced.
                What would help FAR more is if we managed to create more stable two-parent families in the UK – and we can use policies to do that (cutting benefits and making divorce more difficult perhaps) – and also reintroduce a sense of shame and fear in girls: that is not PC but it is the key. Sadly, the extrem politically correct attitude is to preach to boys – and that will never work, because the decision YES or NO rests with the girl and the girl alone.
                I like quoting the Simpsons Mrs Kraboppel (or similar) telling her class after the sex education featuring the rabbit cartoon:
                “Now that we’ve told you how to do it – don’t do it!’

  • Baron

    Baron has no view on the time limit, the barbarian from the East ain’t in favour of abortions for reasons other than the health of the mother, the health of the emerging life, and rape. There are other ways to avoid the outcome of an unwanted conception, amongst which the one that never fails is a distance of around six feet between the man and the woman.

    Could someone enlighten the poorly educated Slav though. If, as the feminists claim, a woman has the right to choose whether to kill off the newly emerging life or not, why is it she loses that right after the child’s birth? What is there, legally, morally or whatever that robs her of the chance to also kill the newly born, the teen ager, the fully grown up man?

    Please, give the slip to arguing that after birth, the newly born becomes fully sentient, in command of all his or her senses and stuff. There are no guarantees that this is always the case, when thta happens the society institutions take over the welfare of the child. But why the society, why not the mother?

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