Last night Abortion Rights held a public meeting in the House of Commons to discuss the current climate around reproductive rights in the UK and how the pro-choice movement should respond. It was a fantastic evening – we squeezed at least 150 into a room seating 110 (apologies to all those who had to stand!) – and were joined by a brilliant and well-informed panel of speakers, plus one slightly lonely anti-choicer who received short shrift from all of us.
Here's a brief run down of the meeting:
We opened with Kerry Abel, from the Abortion Rights Executive Committee, summarising the onslaught of political, media and grassroots anti-choice activity we've seen in 2012 already. Then it was on to our first speaker: Diane Abbott MP, Shadow Public Health Minister and long-time abortion rights advocate.
Diane described a 'serious pushback against women's right to choose', from the usual anti-choice suspects who have recently acquired a new 'presentational gloss learned from the US religious right'.
She ticked off a checklist of American campaigning tactics that have been imported to the UK: isolating and stigmatising abortion providers; generating anxiety about abortion by over stating the risks; raising questions about providers' financial propriety; undermining the credibility of recognised medical bodies; putting obstacles in the way of access and attempting to present faith-based and anti-choice organisations as impartial – all of which we are seeing at the moment.
She was scathing about the recent push by Nadine Dorries and other MPs to change abortion counselling arrangements – an issue which she said would 'light the anti-choice touch paper' - describing the upcoming consultation on the issue as bogus and a cover for changing the rules to attack abortion providers, which ministers have already made up their minds to implement.
Diane was followed by Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry, who, after calling on everyone to join Abortion Rights, focused on recent protests taking place outside abortion clinics. She questioned why the government had failed to act or speak out about the intimidation women are facing and called for laws against harassment to be enforced as a priority. She also revealed that she had written to Director of Public Prosecutions Kier Starmer to investigate what action can be taken against these protesters.
Next up was TUC Assistant General Secretary Kay Carberry, who re-affirmed the trade union movement's strong support for abortion rights and reminded the audience that when abortion is restricted or banned it is always working class women who suffer most.
Guardian columnist Zoe Williams made some crucial points about the way public debate – but not public opinion – has moved against abortion in recent months. She pointed out that even two years ago a sting operation against an abortion provider, such as the one carried out by the Telegraph recently, would have been unthinkable and would have earned censure from the Press Complaints Commission.
She also challenged the view that unplanned pregnancy and abortion are inherently traumatic or a source of vulnerability, pointing out that the chances of a woman never getting pregnant during her fertile life are extremely low – less than 1%.
"I don't think every abortion is a tragedy. It's an accident," she said. "If you've had an abortion you need to stand up and say so and say I didn't need counselling. It was a medical procedure".
Clare Murphy of abortion provider BPAS then gave us the view from the frontline of anti-choice activity, providing disturbing testimony from women who have experienced intimidation by clinic protesters, including one seeking abortion for foetal anomalies who had been harassed and another who felt unable to attend her follow up appointment because she couldn't bear to run the gauntlet of protesters again.
She also discussed the 'mendacious campaign' by Nadine Dorries against abortion providers and the boost it has received from the Department of Health following the recent 'raids' on clinics in search of malpractice, which cost the Care Quality Commission £1 million.
In the light of this, her remark that Andrew Lansley, before he was Secretary of State for Health, used to support the removal of the two doctors signature rule for abortion, certainly came as a surprise to many in the audience.
Our next speaker was Natalie Bennett, Chair of Green Party Women, who outlined the Green Party's exemplary policies around reform of the abortion law (including a manifesto commitment) and called for a pro-active approach to campaigning – which was one of the recurring themes of the evening.
Natalie was followed by Richy Thompson, who spoke about the British Humanist Association's recent investigation into the activities of anti-choice organisations such as SPUC, Lovewise and LIFE in schools – including telling students that abortion causes breast cancer, suicide and 'post-abortion syndrome'.
Our last speaker was UK Feminista Director Kat Banyard, who praised the resurgence of feminist and pro-choice activism across the country. She also pointed out that Abortion Rights' income is roughly 1% of what anti-choice charity LIFE receives every year and emphasised the importance of fundraising – which was much appreciated by us!
We had begun with a reminder from the Chair of the cross-party support for abortion rights that exists in parliament, so we were delighted the first comment from the floor came from Amber Rudd, Conservative MP for Hastings and Rye, who emphasised her own commitment to women's equality, saying "I'm here because I've supported abortion rights all my life, as do many Conservatives".
As well as some more excellent contributions from the floor (although not as many as we would have liked, because time was short), we had a less welcome intervention from an anti-choice advocate who had come armed with a stack of papers to educate the audience. He was cut short by Zoe Williams telling him not to bother, a slow handclap and finally Diane Abbott telling him to sit down – which he did!
Diane Abbott gets the final comment of the evening too:
"The thing which really animates me: this is an attack on women's autonomy, it is an attack on women, on the advances that women have made. Whatever Nadine wants to say, I will fight with every breath in my body for a woman's right to choose".
So what did we learn from the meeting? Well, that there is a huge amount of support, expertise and enthusiasm amongst UK pro-choicers. From the demographics of the audience it seems that the movement is attracting many young supporters – both women and men.
There's a clear desire to see openness from women who have direct experience of abortion – although this can be hard in the current climate - and for frank and honest discussion about abortion as an everyday fact of life, rather than as a personal tragedy or source of regret. And a desire to celebrate what we have achieved and the benefits that the right to safe, legal abortion has brought to individuals and society as a whole.
Now we just have to make sure Andrew Lansley hears us….
Many thanks to everyone who attended the meeting. To speak out about your experience of abortion or to leave a message of support visit www.prochoicemajority.org.uk. To support Abortion Rights click on the 'Donate' button at the top right of this page.