David Steel's views on abortion were considered to be front page news in The Guardian today. The former Liberal leader, who was the architect of the 1967 Act which legalised abortion, is quoted by the paper as saying: "Everybody can agree that there are too many abortions."
Yet if you turn to the actual interview which prompted the news story, he actually says something very different. There, he states: "I don't think we had expected anything like those numbers," he concedes, "but when people say there are 'too many' I say: 'All right, you give me the right figure.' And of course, nobody can."
Now, I don't know whether Steel gave contradictory quotes to The Guardian or whether the newspaper has somehow mistakenly reported or distorted his quotes in search of a better news story. Either are entirely possible and it doesn't really matter.
What does matter is how sensible Steel's approach to the issue is. He clearly has no appetite for restricting access to abortion, and indeed seems to support relaxing the requirement for two doctors to approve of a termination. But he quite rightly says that the abortion issue has to be seen in the context of policies on contraception. It's clearly far better for pregnancy to be avoided by means of effective use of contraception than for abortion to be seen as means of contraception. That in turn requires good sex education to ensure that women and men can make their own choices on the subject. Abstinence programmes on their own are largely ineffective.
But overall, Steel is right to highlight that criminalising abortion means that poorer women are likely to suffer from back street abortionists, while richer ones can always find ways around the law. We should also remember that when abortion was illegal, levels of infanticide were also significantly higher, whereas I recall reading a few years ago that government no longer bothers to collect statistics on that, as it is now so rare.
That doesn't mean that we all necessarily have to approve of the numbers of abortions being performed each year. In the words of Bill Clinton: "Abortion should be safe, legal - and rare."
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