As we prepare to celebrate 40 years of safe legal abortion and build support for liberalisation of the abortion law, the anti-choice lobby is gearing up for its most significant assault on abortion access in 17 years.
October 2007 and April 2008 mark the 40th anniversary of the vote and enactment of safe, legal abortion in Britain. The passage of the 1967 Abortion Act saved the lives and health of thousands of women and to this day remains fundamental to women’s autonomy and equality. MPs opposed to abortion are however planning to mark the anniversary by submitting amendments to the Government’s Human Tissue and Embryos Bill in the Autumn to reduce the abortion time limit and make access to abortion more difficult for all women. A similar move in 1990 resulted in a reduction in the abortion time limit from 28 to 24 weeks.
Anti-choice myths dangerously influential
This Autumn’s amendments will be the culmination of three years of agitation by the small yet well-funded and vociferous anti-choice lobby, promoting a step-by-step approach to total abolition of abortion rights.
The emotive focus on time limits has little to do with reducing the number of abortions, women’s welfare or with medical reality. Later abortion is in fact very rare: assertions about an epidemic of ‘post abortion trauma’ are overwhelmingly disproved by evidence, and there has been no major breakthrough in the survival of premature babies below the current abortion time limit. Women only have a later abortion for exceptional reasons and no one involved takes the decision lightly.
The focus on later abortion is a tactical device to shift attention onto the foetus, away from women’s needs and, ultimately, to undermine support for a woman’s right to choose. It is an approach borrowed directly from the US anti-choice movement, which has been alarmingly successful in whittling away abortion rights.
In Britain this distorted focus has so far dominated the media and parliamentary debate, with the rather extreme views of some Church leaders getting the lion’s share of airtime and column inches and three (defeated) anti-choice backbench bills forcing the agenda into the Commons. Women’s real experiences and sometimes complex reasons for needing abortion have been excluded. We urge supporters to encourage their MP to sign Laura Moffatt MP’s excellent parliamentary Early Day Motion 1649 ‘Access to Abortion’ countering some of these myths.
The battle has begun
The fight over the outcome of the Government’s Human Tissue and Embryos (HTE) Bill has begun already with two parliamentary committees considering evidence from all sides. Abortion Rights has submitted evidence to the Bill’s Scrutiny Committee through the ‘Voice for Choice’ pro-choice coalition, outlining the importance of defending later abortion to the few vulnerable women who need it.
The Science and Technology Committee has announced it is conducting an enquiry into the scientific developments relating to the Abortion Act 1967, excluding social evidence around later abortion. Abortion Rights is lobbying and submitting evidence to urge the committee to come out strongly against any reduction in the time limit and instead to recommend liberalisation of the law, at least in the first 13 weeks of pregnancy.
Abortion Rights will work closely with allies in and outside of parliament to defend the 24-week time limit and ensure pro-choice amendments are put forward to liberalise current legislation as possible and appropriate.
Doctors too have entered the debate, with a British Medical Association Conference vote on 27 June 2007, strongly in favour of removing the requirement of two doctors’ agreement for women’s abortion decisions (67 per cent) and to maintain their support for the current 24-week time limit (73 per cent).
Government must make a stand
The government’s position so far has been that abortion is a matter of conscience and backbench private legislation. Abortion Rights is calling on the Gordon Brown government to make a stand for Britain’s pro-choice majority. It should take an active role in defending women’s current legal rights against hostile amendments and supporting liberalisation of the law.
An opinion poll commissioned by Abortion Rights for International Women’s Day this March, showed a woman’s right to choose continues to be supported by an overwhelming three quarters of people. This should give the Government, Parliamentary Committee members and MPs confidence in making a stand for women’s abortion rights.
Make your voice heard
Currently, ministers and MPs hear predominantly from anti-choice activists. Roman Catholic Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s provocative broadside comparing abortion to the Dunblane massacre and threats to withdraw Catholic votes will still be ringing in their ears.
The pro-choice majority must now make its views heard by MPs and the Government. We urge all those who value women’s rights to get involved in the 40th anniversary ‘pro-choice majority’ campaign launched by Abortion Rights, to loudly remind MPs and the government of the fundamental importance of abortion rights to women and the need to oppose any restriction in rights. 40 years on, it’s time the debate turned to liberalising the law to end doctor’s unfair right of veto over women’s decisions and long NHS delays that still make accessing services difficult for many women.
Abortion Rights will be calling a range of initiatives over the coming months. To get involved please sign up for action alerts on our website. If you do one thing for women’s rights in this anniversary year, please join Abortion Rights as a member — together we are stronger!