The government’s ongoing ‘austerity’ agenda of cuts to public services and welfare benefits is hitting women the hardest. This is reflected in the widening gender gap between men and women. Last year the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, placed Britain 26th – down from 9th in 2006 – lower than almost every other European country.
The cuts are not just hitting women economically. In 2013 ‘Unprotected Nation’, a report commissioned by Brook and the Family Planning Association concluded that ‘policies that cut and restrict contraceptive and sexual health services now will result in greater numbers of unintended pregnancies’.
This year, a TUC report ‘The impact on women recession and austerity’ gives more evidence of cuts to contraceptive services. It notes that the ‘Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare, part of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, surveyed clinicians in 2012 and found that almost 60 per cent reported budget cuts,’ while some Community Health Services planned to ‘impose savings of around £200,000 each year for the next four years from the sexual health services budget.’
The Advisory Group on Contraception (AGC), has looked at the impact of cuts on the numbers of women having unplanned pregnancies. In 2012, 3.2 million women aged between 15 and 44 experienced restrictions in obtaining sexual health and contraceptive services. The AGC research found that the average abortion rate was around 9.7% higher in areas where services were restricted, compared with areas with no restrictions.
These cuts indicate that women are being prevented from controlling their reproduction and, as a result, are having more unplanned pregnancies.
To exacerbate this problem further, cuts are also limiting access to abortion services, particularly in rural areas. The TUC’s report cites ‘only one specialist abortion clinic serving the whole of Wales’ – a clinic that until the successful action of Abortion Rights campaigners, was subject to harassment from anti-choice group 40 Days For Life. These lack of services means longer waiting times for women who want a termination – putting them at risk of needing later abortions.
Such cuts, whilst limiting women’s access to contraception and abortion, will actually cost the government more. ‘Unprotected Nation’ report states: ‘Based on the current levels of cuts, the annual costs of unintended pregnancies to the NHS between 2013 and 2020 will be £662 million; a cumulative total of more than £5.2 billion over 8 years’. If access worsens, the report forecasts ‘these costs could rise by around £299 million (6%) by 2020’.
Womens’ organisations, trade unions and sexual health organisations across the country are united in opposition to the policies of austerity because of the negative impact they have on women’s lives and bodies. Saturday’s demonstration against Austerity is a crucial opportunity to raise awareness about the cuts to contraceptive services and abortion provision and help build the campaign to defend a women’s right to choose.
Sophie Bolt, Abortion Rights Executive Member