A woman's right to choose has been for decades one of the central planks of feminism. Safe, legal abortion must be available on demand. And looking back from the relative freedom women have gained today, it is hard to imagine how bound women once were to their biology, how they were once as Simone de Beauvoir put it ''slaves to the species'', unable to pursue achievement as individuals because of their role as vessels for future generations.
And it has become clear in recent times, thanks in part to the seminal work of anthropologist Beverley Strassmann among the pre-industrial society of the Dogon, West Africa, that women's fecundity became an even greater problem in the industrial age than it was in ancient times. Women who exist on a subsistence diet and breast-feed for
long periods menarche at 18 and give birth around eight to 10 times. Some pre-industrial societies also had early forms of birth control - native Americans inserted primitive coils before long journeys.
In the industrial society of nineteenth and early twentieth-century Britain, sexual repression was the only form of birth control. It was not unusual for women to give birth to 12, 14, 16 babies - impossible numbers. Added to that was the huge stigma of illegitimacy. The background to the 1967 Abortion Act in Britain was thus the real menace of illicit abortion
carried out in back streets which ended up claiming the lives of desperate women as well as their foetuses. Now there is an attempt to change that law, as 100 MPs are calling for a review of the 24-week limit.
The debate on abortion is often hijacked by extremists. But it is important to approach this with an open mind. It is not necessarily an attack on feminism to recognise that things have changed since the sixties. In the culture we live in now, it is sometimes harder for a woman to justify having a baby than it is not to. If a woman under 25, particularly of a higher social class, falls pregnant, the assumption will probably be that she should have an abortion.
The late Lorna Sage in her autobiography, Bad Blood, recorded how strong-minded she had to be in the 1970s to continue with an unplanned pregnancy. Fay Weldon has
a character in her novel, Praxis, say: ''Only an idiot gives birth to an unwanted baby these days.'' Feminists sometimes argue that no woman has an abortion after 12 weeks without an extremely good reason and that women should be left to determine the limit themselves but in my view that is too much to expect.
A woman who is coping with an unplanned pregnancy should not also have to deal with this complex moral issue. She may be coming under all kinds of pressure. Years ago, I had a friend who went for a late abortion after her initial decision to continue with her unplanned pregnancy came in for continual questioning along the lines of: ''Are you sure about this? Where exactly are you going to live? Don't you have enough trouble looking after your dog?''
In the face of this, she finally decided that she was not, after all, capable of rearing a child well. Women do not always feel very clear about what they should do. A generation ago a woman would hardly have had a positive pregnancy test at 12 weeks - now she can do a home test at two weeks.
Doesn't this give reasonable time to make a decision about what is termed ''social abortion'' without medical reason? In late abortions, vets anaesthetise animal foetuses - should doctors do the same? These questions need to be faced head on. They merit serious, grown-up discussion, not an ideological slanging match.
The Scottish Herald
August 25th 2004