Medicine Interview Hot Topics: Abortion Debate
Abortion is legal in England, Scotland and Wales assuming that the criteria of the 1967 Abortion Act are met. The criteria are as follows:
- Risk to the life of the pregnant woman;
- A necessity for abortion to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman;
- Risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family (up to a term limit of 24 weeks of gestation); or
- Substantial risk that if the child were born, it would ‘suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped’
In Northern Ireland, abortion is legal providing that the criteria in the Abortion (Northern Ireland) (No. 2) Regulations 2020 are met.
Doctors have a right of conscientious objection unless the woman is at risk of death or serious injury.
However, patients also have a right to receive objective and non-judgemental care from their physician. Therefore, doctors who object are required to inform their patient of this and tell them that they may see another doctor.
The Issues & Debate
Those that are against abortion may be against it for religious or moral reasons. The moral argument normally takes the following path: we know that deliberately killing an innocent human is wrong, and we also may believe that a foetus is an innocent human. Therefore abortion is an act of deliberate killing of an innocent human, and is therefore morally wrong. If we accept the foetus’ right to live, then for the foetus to die (i.e. for abortion to occur) there must be an imperative that is as morally important as the foetus’ own right to live. The only possible imperative is the mother’s right to live, meaning that in this instance abortion would be permissible only if it saves the mother’s life.
However, one must consider if the foetus is a human being. Is it a separate being to its mother? Should its right to live outweigh its mother’s right to decide what to do with her body? We can reorganise these points to make the decisions that a pregnant woman and her doctor may face more obvious: does a foetus have a right to be carried in a woman’s womb until it is born? Is a woman’s right to decide what to do with her body more important than the right to life?
Looking at the Implications of the Law
We must also consider if there is an answer to the following question - when does a foetus become human? In the UK, the answer to that question is seemingly 24 weeks - that is the cutoff after which abortion is only permissible if there is severe risk to the woman´s life or a severe fetal abnormality. This limit was 28 weeks until 1990.
You will have your own view on the ethics of abortion. The key is to remember that as a doctor your role is to help your patients, and to do so within the confines of the law as best as your ability allows. The minutiae of the abortion debate will always be argued over, and some of the details may well appear somewhat arbitrary. However, as it stands the rulings are the result of years of work towards a just goal - allowing women to have control of their own bodies.
Potential questions which may be asked in your interview
- Should women be able to have an abortion if their life is not at risk?
- What do you know about the law on abortion in the UK?
- Has the law on abortion in the UK changed in the last 50 years?
- Do you know what reasons might permit a woman to have an abortion in the UK?
- Should doctors that are anti-abortion be allowed to practice in the UK?
- Is the law on abortion the same in all parts of the UK?
- Talk to us about the abortion debate. Is abortion morally right?
How to answer questions on the abortion debate
When answering questions on this topic, remember to present a careful and balanced point of view. There isn’t a ‘right’ answer to give - your interviewers will want to see that you are empathetic, understand the difficulties of giving a definitive answer, and consider your answer in light of regulation and trying to help patients. If you are anti-abortion, make sure to explain that this viewpoint would either not prevent you from providing abortions, or that you would refer patients on to another doctor and ensure that they received the same high standard of care from them.
How can you include the topic in your medicine interview
This topic will not link readily to others, and as a particularly difficult ethical and moral debate you would perhaps be well-placed leaving its inclusion up to your interviewers.