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Betraying The Midwife: The Feminist Case Against Cathy Warwick & ‘Decriminalisation’

by Georgia Clarke

Few people will have failed to notice the controversy caused by Cathy Warwick, the chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), in her imposition of a policy on the RCM in favour of the total removal of all restrictions on abortion in law, as well as official support for a campaign in favour of those aims. As a feminist who supports legal protections for the right to life of unborn children, I find Warwick’s behaviour particularly appalling and worthy of resignation, especially given the inhumane and misogynistic implications of the policy she has instigated.

Despite the uproar this has caused amongst midwives, and the general public, Warwick has stubbornly tried to defend her actions, but in ways that either fail to address or completely fudge the objections raised against it. Warwick has said that it is “not true” to say (as has been reported) that “the RCM is campaigning to legalise abortion on demand, at any time during pregnancy, for any reason”. Quite the contrary however, the reports are entirely true, and it is her face-saving denial which is as completely inaccurate as it is utterly inappropriate.

As she admits, the BPAS campaign to which Warwick has signed up the RCM, and the new position she has now introduced, is about ‘decriminalising’ abortion. This means removing abortion from criminal law altogether, which of course would involve the total repeal of all legal restrictions on abortion. There would be no grounds on which an abortion could not take place, and no ‘upper limit’ in weeks gestation. That would mean that any woman could abort a child at eight months or further (as some do already when a baby in the womb is discovered to possess disability), and could do so for any reason, including because she does not want a girl.

This is precisely what we see when we look at countries that have an absence of laws restricting abortion on grounds or weeks gestation. I don’t need to mention the high abortion rates in China and Vietnam, where there are no limitations on abortion provision, but where the phenomenon of gendercide and other abuses has been worsened by policies like the ‘One Child’ (now ‘Two Child’) policy.

For the only Western examples of ‘decriminalisation’ – Canada and the Australian States of Victoria and Tasmania – we don’t know much. Canada mandates collection of abortion data from hospitals, but not clinics, and the territory of Quebec does not report details such as what point in pregnancy an abortion occurs. Victoria and Tasmania meanwhile, collect no data at all. What little we do know about these places however, is concerning to say the least.

Warwick references Canada as proof that removing restrictions on abortion does not increase its incidence significantly, and thus this “is not the outrageous idea that some sections of the press suggest”. Yet earlier this year, a Quebec study indicated that at least 216 babies died in provincial hospitals or abortion clinics after surviving botched abortions between the years 2000 and 2012, though the authors were more concerned about the effects this had on infant mortality rates than what it suggested about medical practices in that territory.

Just last month, two related studies published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), found a higher-than-expected ratio of boys to girls born to immigrants to Canada from India over the past two decades. This gender imbalance was especially pronounced among families that already had two daughters, and researchers linked the ratio imbalance to preceding terminations. This is the sort of misogyny that is allowed to happen by the total absence of legal limitations on abortion. No wonder a CMAJ editorial in 2012 called on Canadian medical colleges “to rule that a health care professional should not reveal the sex of the fetus to any woman before, say, 30 weeks of pregnancy”, since this might curb fetal femicide in that country.

Nor is Canada the only example of where abuses take place. In April 2010, a Channel 7 news broadcast in Melbourne reported that there had been a 600% increase in late-term abortions being performed at the Royal Women’s Hospital since most abortion restrictions were removed in 2008. Their presenter Jennifer Keyte stated how “midwives and doctors feel traumatised” by having to perform so many late-term abortions at that hospital. No kidding. The very idea of late term abortions horrifies most people, as it did Holly Willoughby.

Needless to say then, even if rational thinking did not prove that ‘decriminalising’ abortion would certainly mean legalising “abortion on demand, at any time during pregnancy, for any reason”, the evidence from places where abortion restrictions have been radically or entirely removed, does. How Warwick can deny this is mind-boggling. Either she does not understand what she is supporting, or she is being incredibly disingenuous. Regardless, the effects of ‘decriminalisation’, were this ever to be passed, would be bad for medical professionals, for women, and for unborn children.

No-one is saying that Warwick likes abortion for its own sake, or that she wants total deregulation of the procedure such that there would be a complete medical ‘free-for-all’. What we are saying though, is that reason and evidence both show that it would allow for a range of abuses – misogynistic, eugenic, cruel – to take place. Occurrences in which no midwife who cares about babies as well as their mothers should ever want to be involved.

It is utterly unacceptable that the RCM should have taken this policy, and without any consultation of its members. Without even a vote on its board. The RCM is meant to be the trade union for midwives, and yet no respect for the principle of trade union democracy has been shown. Quite the contrary in fact, as Warwick put it on BBC Breakfast, “We haven’t consulted the members and under the way the RCM operates, we don’t need to consult our members”:

More than to support their interests and union democracy however, midwives who oppose this undemocratic policy have done so because it contradicts the ethical basis of their whole profession. Many of them entered midwifery to help both women and their children, but a policy that would potentially enable sex-selective abortion and abortion up to birth – abhorrent practices that polls of recent years show a majority of women oppose the legality of – would hurt, not help, both.

For all these reasons, Parliamentarians are absolutely right to call for Warwick’s resignation. The policy that she has imposed has no legitimacy in midwifery principles or in union practice, and no mandate amongst midwives or the majority of women. It is undemocratic, anti-feminist, and inhumane.  No-one who advocates such a position, and abuses her executive position to force the RCM to support it, should be anywhere near the leadership of a Royal College that seeks to represent those who help women and children at their most vulnerable.

Georgia Clarke is a Committee Member of Oxford Students For Life.