Tories attack women’s right to choose

Photo: jonanamary

By Lisa-Jane Green

A reactionary campaign against abortion rights has recently been whipped up by senior Tories. Backbencher Nadine Dorries MP secured a debate on reducing the abortion time limit from 24 to 22 weeks, Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt re-stated his support for a reduction in the abortion time limit to 12 weeks (in an interview with The Times [paywall]) and Minister for Women and Equalities Maria Miller stated her support for a cut to the 20 week mark.

The current legal time limit for abortion in England, Scotland and Wales is 24 weeks in most circumstances. This was upheld in 2008 when a series of amendments were put to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in parliament. Then, Jeremy Hunt voted to reduce the abortion time limit to 12 weeks and Maria Miller voted to reduce the limit to 20 weeks. Last year Maria Millar supported Nadine Dorries’ proposals to introduce new abortion counselling regulations.

Both the BBC and Guardian noted that the attacks from government ministers were politically motivated. For example this year’s ‘raids’ on abortion clinics instigated by then Health Minister Andrew Lansley were widely press released, despite the fact that very few and minor irregularities were found. The checks reportedly cost £1 million and mean that 580 pre-planned inspections of other facilities were cancelled.

Figures released by the Department of Health recently indicated that there has been a year on year fall in the number of abortions after 12 weeks since 2008. Since 2008, the number of abortion taking place at 13 weeks and over, has fallen steadily year on year to 16,755, from 18,990.

Dr Kate Guthrie, spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, recently reasserted medics’ support for the status quo: ‘Reducing the time limit to 12 weeks would severely limit women’s choice at an extremely difficult time in their life’.

The importance of safe and affordable access to abortions to women’s rights

Control over whether, when and how many children to have is crucial to control of every other aspect of a woman’s life. There is no 100 per cent effective contraception and the reasons why women will decide that it is the right or wrong time to bring a child into the world vary greatly. Services should be available to support women in controlling their own fertility, but also in providing options when faced with an unwanted pregnancy. That’s what the pro-choice movement campaigns for. It’s for women to decide.

The argument for safe, free and easily accessible terminations has been hard fought. Prior to the 1967 Abortion Act the NHS was dealing with the consequences of thousands of women each year self-aborting or requiring treatment following ‘back-street’ abortions.

There is also a class relationship. Women with access to finance will always be able to secure terminations if required. The argument for abortions being available on the national health is about equality and fairness.

Access in good time is also key. It is much safer and more straight-forward for women to have a termination in the first 10 weeks. If doctors or agencies put delays in the way in the form of referral times, waiting lists, mandatory counselling – this could impact on the health and well-being of the woman who has already considered her position and often made up her mind already.

Abortion on demand?

Although anti -abortion campaigners portray the situation in Britain as ‘abortion on demand’ that is not in fact the case. Abortion laws in the UK are more restrictive than in almost every other European country, where abortion on request is legal in the first three months of pregnancy. The current UK abortion law is full of compromises and flaws that could be improved to properly support women and allow them to control their bodies and make independent decisions.

The current law gives doctors a veto over women’s decisions. In Britain, abortion is not legally available at the request of the woman. After a woman has decided that she wants to end her pregnancy, she has to persuade two doctors to agree to her decision on the basis of restrictive legal criteria. This requirement is not only paternalistic, but more damagingly, it allows the approximately one in ten doctors who are opposed to all abortion the opportunity to delay, obstruct or even veto women’s decisions.

There is no legal requirement for doctors to declare their conscientious objection to abortion but professional guidelines require that they do refer a woman on to another doctor immediately. Anecdotal evidence suggests this did not always happen, although there have been considerable service improvements since the 1970s.

There is also no law requiring each Trust to provide abortion services. Levels of funding for NHS service provision had increased prior to 2010, but waiting lists still vary across Britain resulting in a ‘postcode lottery’ of delays. The Department of Health has set a target for delays of no longer than three weeks. No government figures are published on waiting times but research conducted by the All Party Pro-choice and Sexual Health Group showed that 27 per cent of Primary Care Trusts delayed women beyond three weeks.

British abortion law was never extended to ‘Northern Ireland’ and women there still do not have access to safe legal abortion. With the developments in the peace process in Northern Ireland and the re-establishment of the institutions, it is time women there had their own rights to abortion.

The increased attack on women

In the Fawcett Society’s report The Impact of austerity on women they note that reducing public spending ‘will have a disproportionate effect on women, making many women poorer and less financially autonomous.’

In Britain women are not starting from a position of equality, women experience a full-time pay gap of 14.9 per cent, 64 per cent of low paid workers are women, 92 per cent of lone parents are women – a group more likely to live below the poverty line and the costs of childcare in the UK are amongst the highest in the world, heavily limiting women’s choices to take up paid work.

Add to this the government’s plans to cut more jobs in the public sector – where most women work (and receive pensions) – and the cuts to welfare benefits and public services – which women use more. The triple whammy means that women end up bearing the brunt of these cuts plus also have to fill in the gaps where state support has been withdrawn.

As well as women being squeezed out of the jobs market through redundancy or a necessity to care for children or parents, they are also reporting motherhood as a barrier to current employment. An Ernst & Young survey of 1,000 working women revealed that two thirds faced multiple barriers throughout their careers and women reported motherhood as the second highest barrier to career progression.

Attacking the time limit – as Dorries knows well – is simply a tactic to restrict the more crucial right that women should have control over their bodies and be allowed to take safe, legal and medical decisions themselves. Only one per cent of abortions were carried out after 20 weeks of pregnancy in England and Wales in 2011; however these often represent the most vulnerable women.

This is part of a collection of tactics the anti-choice movement has adopted to restrict access by not funding services, enforcing mandatory counselling, encouraging healthcare professionals to opt out of treatment on moral grounds and limiting education about services.

Why the government started this reactionary debate

Although the government has announced that it is not planning to change its policy on this issue, Cameron has allowed senior government figures to make public statements and has granted MPs time in parliament to talk about abortion. This is despite the scientific evidence and facts not having changed. Also there is little evidence that public opinion has altered either.

Promoting this reactionary discussion fits in with the framework the Conservative-led government has for advancing statements and policies that divide society and threatens to reduce women’s control of their own lives.

As government ministers are emboldened to voice their anti-choice, anti-women views, this push from the right has opened up the space for extreme organisations to get in on the act.

Currently fringe religious groups opposed to abortion are picketing clinics, primarily in England, with the aim of deterring women from having abortions; harassing them individually and pressurising the staff who work in the clinics. These actions take the debate away from the legal sphere, where they have lost the debate in parliament and even away from the media sphere, where at least advocates can be challenged and facts have to be checked.

The evidence is that these actions do not stop women having terminations, but that it delays their access. In Brighton where a group called Abort67 have been door-stepping women at clinics, the gestation period when women present themselves at clinics is longer. Women get frightened and go home, then come back again later when they have built themselves up again.

What pro-choice support is there

This is a crucial time to build up active support across the country for women’s rights.

There is a silent or un-reported majority for a women’s right to choose. When asked, 76 per cent of the population support a woman’s right to make her own abortion decision. There is a high level of trade union support, with most of the major trade unions individually affiliated, and the TUC offering Abortion Rights a place at the head of the national demonstrations on 26 March2011, and 20 October 2012. The NUS Women’s Campaign is working with women’s groups in student unions across the country to promote pro-choice campaigning.

When the issue was debated in parliament in 2008, a move to bring in a time limit of 20 weeks was defeated by 332 votes to 190 and a move to 22-week limit was opposed by 304 votes to 233. Although the political landscape in parliament has swung to the right the evidence from the recent debate is that there is not a huge groundswell of support for changing the law.

In fact Health Minister Anna Soubry MP announced from the floor of the debate on 31 October that the Government is dropping the counselling proposals being discussed at committee level, which served as a welcome alternative focus for some of the media coverage this week, rather than on the repetitive and unnecessary debate around time limits.

The recent attacks have caused outrage among MPs and pro-choice campaigners. Pro-choice supporters campaigned vigorously against changes to abortion counselling last year – more than 7,000 contacted their MPs to express their opposition. They can be proud that they have made their voices heard and helped force the government to think again.

Actions across the country have been organised by local groups angry at extreme organisations holding vigils outside clinics, most notably in Hove, East Sussex. This will continue as feminist groups and those interested in reproductive rights get more organised. And when Jeremy Hunt expressed his ‘personal views’ on 12 weeks there was a rapid increase in activity on Twitter and other social media, and an increase in membership applications to the national pro-choice campaign, Abortion Rights.

What’s needed now is a network of local activist groups, bringing together the local trade unions, health service practitioners, feminist groups, politicians and community campaigns. The pro-choice majority needs to be much more visible and proactive if women’s reproductive rights are to be defended and extended.

For more information including articles and factual resources: see the website of Abortion Rights.