Now that the drama of the general election and the negotiations to form a coalition have finally ended, what does the future hold for the struggle for abortion rights and reproductive choice in the UK? From a pro-choice perspective the results have been mixed.
A total of 128 MPs who voted to keep the 24-week abortion time limit in 2008, including staunch pro-choice campaigners Evan Harris and Chris McCafferty, have lost their seats or retired. Their absence will be keenly felt in a House of Commons now dominated by newly elected members.
An initial tally of the new Parliament indicates about 210 MPs supporting the 24-week time limit, 221 opposing and 213 whose views are currently unknown.
In terms of the new coalition Government, David Cameron made his preference for a reduction to 20 or 22 weeks clear during the election campaign. Within the Cabinet, the majority of members favour a reduction, including three who voted for a 12 week limit. George Osborne remains the only Conservative member supporting 24 weeks, alongside Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne and Danny Alexander.
Among the Cabinet’s female members, Theresa May, Home Secretary and Women and Equalities Minister, voted for 20 weeks, as did Caroline Spelman, the new Environment Secretary and Cheryl Gillan at the Welsh Office.
At the Department of Health we have Andrew Lansley (22 weeks), Paul Burstow (24), Simon Burns (20) and Anne Milton as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State with responsibility for abortion and sexual health services, voting for 20 weeks.
An attack on the time limit in the near future seems unlikely, however, given the pressing issues facing the new Government, combined with the presence of the generally more pro-choice Liberal Democrats within the coalition. In his first interview as Secretary of State, Andrew Lansley signalled that the Government would not be seeking such a move, although leaving open the possibility that a backbench MP may seek to re-open the issue.
The most pressing threat to abortion access during this Parliament remains the possibility of public sector spending cuts. Although ‘frontline’ health and education funding is currently ring-fenced, it is highly likely that future sweeping reductions will impact sexual and reproductive health services, jeopardising the investments and service improvements seen over the past decade, and threatening the health and well-being of thousands of women. In the coming months Abortion Rights, alongside trade unions and women’s organisations, will be vigorously campaigning to oppose any such cuts to these vital services.