Thanks to Gordon Brown’s pandering to the bigots inside his own cabinet, Labour MPs had a free vote on anti-abortion amendments put to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in parliament this week. The Labour Party has policy supporting abortion. But some Labour MPs will still vote to cut women’s access to abortion, declaring that this is an “issue of conscience”. Yet the idea that abortion is an “issue of conscience” makes no sense. Why single out abortion? Why isn’t voting to go to war and kill millions of people an “issue of conscience”? Or cutting disability benefits? Or selling off schools to used-car salesmen?
But more fundamentally, the idea that abortion is above politics is plain wrong. Abortion is not a “moral” issue – it is a political one about whether women have the right to control their bodies. Attacks on abortion rights don’t impact on all women in the same way – they specifically hit working class women. Rich women have always been able to get access to abortion, whether at private clinics or by travelling abroad. That is why any attack on abortion rights is a political attack on the working class – and that is why we have to fight them.
Forty-two years ago the 1967 Abortion Act was passed in Britain. Prior to the Act, thousands of women desperate to end their pregnancies resorted to dangerous and illegal backstreet abortions, with many dying or being seriously injured as a result. The Act has drawbacks – it doesn’t allow abortion on request, some women still face obstacles in accessing abortion services and it was never extended to Northern Ireland. But the passing of the Act transformed the lives of thousands of women, and was a huge step forwards for women’s rights. The right to abortion is something the majority of people in this country support.
However, abortion rights have come under attack from the right ever since they were introduced. In the 1970s Tory MPs tried to change the law to restrict women’s access to abortion; this led to mass campaigns to defend a woman’s right to choose. The anti-abortion lobby has seized on the issue of late abortions and time limits, because it thinks it has identified a “soft” spot in public opinion. But their underlying aim is to remove all abortion rights. An attack on late abortion is an attack on abortion rights as a whole. Late abortions are very rare and this has been true regardless of time limits or fetal viability.
In 1983 a sociologist researched into all women who had presented for an abortion after 20 weeks in Tower Hamlets in east London. There were just 12 requests made after 20 weeks – or 1.5 percent. This matched the picture in the country as a whole. The main reasons for late presentation were denial of pregnancy, youth and mental disorder. One 14 year old recently arrived from Bangladesh where she had been raped on the way to collect water from a well. She was 30 weeks pregnant and the only case that had presented over 28 weeks in the entire decade.
One 14 year old recently arrived from Bangladesh where she had been raped on the way to collect water from a well. She was 30 weeks pregnant and the only case that had presented over 28 weeks in the entire decade. To have such a focus on what amounts to a tiny minority of abortions is ridiculous, and betrays the political and ideological reasons that underlie this focus. Some women still meet obstruction from their GPs, and the General Medical Council guidance on this remains weak. Abortions at over 20 weeks are often associated with delays in the system, and could be reduced in number by the provision of NHS daycare facilities.
The effect of lowering time limits on abortion is that women who are the most vulnerable – young, poor, ethnic minorities and those with fetal abnormalities – would be prevented from having an abortion. It would mean more injuries and deaths of women desperate to end unwanted pregnancies and resorting to unhygienic and dangerous methods. There is a question about fetal viability – which means the point at which the fetus can survive outside the womb. Some argue that scientific advances mean that this occurs earlier. But medical opinion, based on good research, does not support this idea. There were great advances in neonatal intensive care in the 1970s and 1980s, which led to calls for the limit to be reduced from 28 weeks to 24, but this hasn’t been the case since 1990. I think the issue has been muddled by pictures showing a fetus to be “walking” in the womb and such like, which have been seized upon by the emotive, unscientific and mainly religious groups who are part of the anti-abortion movement. From this, people wrongly extrapolate that the fetus can feel pain – there is a lot of wooly thinking about fetal pain. More pseudo-science, which comes from “research” funded by the anti-abortion lobby, talks about a link between abortion and breast cancer. But they rely on speculation – there’s no evidence. In fact the evidence is that there is no link, as the Royal College of Gynaecologists confirms.
In 1966, the year before abortion was legalised, around 4,000 women in Britain died trying to end a pregnancy that they did not want, could not afford, or could not cope with. They died in agony from infections or perforated wombs – often bleeding to death afraid to go to hospital in case of arrest. It is estimated that every year between 60,000 and 100,000 women went to backstreet abortionists while up to 40 percent of “miscarriages” were self-abortions. In total, despite the risk of death or prison, somewhere between 16 to 20 percent of all pregnancies ended in abortion – around the same level as today. The right to abortion, like the right to divorce and the availability of safe contraception, was an important victory in the fight for women’s rights.
It reflected the wider social changes brought about by women gaining a degree of economic independence as well as the struggles for liberation and equality of the 1960s. A woman’s right to choose whether to have children or not is fundamental to her, and her child’s, prospects of having a decent and happy life. The alternatives to abortion have always been long term misery of one kind or another – shotgun weddings, poverty and overcrowding, the mental strain of caring for a child when you cannot, and a constant fear of pregnancy that makes it impossible to freely enjoy sexual relationships. When women cannot control their fertility they cannot plan their lives or be free to take part in work and society on an equal basis with men.
This is why, 40 years on, just 3 percent of people oppose all abortion while three quarters support the idea that it should be entirely a woman’s right to choose in the first three months of pregnancy – when 90 percent of all abortions are performed. Until the Industrial Revolution, abortion was not considered a crime under the Common Law untill “quickening” – the point at which the baby begins to move in the womb at 16-18 weeks. It did not become illegal until 1861 – at the same time as the state began to regulate marriages, register all births and develop a range of measures to codify family life and discipline the personal lives of the new industrial working class.
When women have no safe legal abortion, it does not stop them. The World Health Organisation estimates that 20 million unsafe illegal abortions a year are performed worldwide and that 68,000 – overwhelmingly poor women – die as a result. When legal abortion came under attack – just years after the 1967 Act had been passed, a mass movement to defend it came rapidly into being. The National Abortion Campaign mobilised tens of thousands of working class people in defence of abortion rights. Socialist women, who were part of the wider working class movement, as well as activists from the women’s movement, launched petitions, lobbies of MPs, meetings and film shows.
Arguing that abortion was a class issue, they found a bedrock of support beyond the ranks of those who thought of themselves as feminists or who rejected religious teachings about the “unborn”. The TUC responded to the grassroots organisation, passing resolutions in favour of a woman’s right to choose and mobilising 80,000 to march on parliament in 1979 against the bill put by John Corrie, a bigoted Tory MP. The demonstration marked the high point of the abortion rights movement. Thanks to the huge resistance against Corrie, attempts to restrict abortions no longer talk of a “woman’s place” or “god’s will”. They now put their energies into the thin end of the wedge – the “softer” issues of viability and disability – lying about their real intent to deny women the right to decide for themselves whether or not to have children.
The degree of freedom to control our own lives has always been an indicator of the general level of liberation in society. That is why the first society to allow women to have safe medical abortions in hospital, without restriction, was revolutionary Russia after 1917. It also granted women support in childcare and complete freedom to divorce – rights taken back under Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship. Ninety years on, while we still have to get two doctors to give us permission and half of all NHS hospitals refuse abortion after 12 weeks, the right to free and safe abortion is one we must fight to defend and extend as part of our fight for freedom and equality. Famous women's rights campaigner Margaret Renn used as the slogan “Not the church. Not the state. Women must decide their fate.” Maybe it's time for that message to be resonated, and for women once again to take action.