Article printed in Tribune magazine for International Women’s Day 2006
For many on the left, there is a confident assumption that women’s abortion rights are a settled issue in Britain – a battle fought and long since won. But the impact of President Bush’s aggressive international anti-abortion agenda is fuelling a campaign to restrict time limit in Britain.
One of Bush’s first acts as President was to re-introduce the ‘Global Gag’ rule, withholding US funding from health centres that provide abortion services or information. Access to safe abortion in over 60 countries has been severely affected. Worldwide, approximately 70,000 women die every year from unsafe abortion.
Across the US, hundreds of state laws restricting women’s legal rights to abortion have been imposed since Bush became President. Horrifically, abortion is now only available in 13 per cent of US counties and some whole states now only have one abortion clinic left.
Bush is now expected to take advantage of his anti-choice nominee Samuel Alito being elected last month to the Supreme Court. For the first time since 1973 there will be no Supreme Court majority in favour of the groundbreaking ‘Roe v Wade’ case that established federal abortion rights.
Already, the Court has ruled that it will hear a Bush Administration appeal for a federal ban on a form of later abortion that makes no exception to protect the pregnant woman’s health.
Further attacks on a women’s right to choose in the US will only fuel anti-choice pressure in Britain which is already now able to mobilise forces beyond the traditional extreme anti-abortion campaign groups.
For over a year, significant sections of the right-wing press have taken up the anti-choice call, relentlessly pumping out sensationalist and pseudo scientific headline grabbing stories against later abortion. With much of the more liberal press largely silent on the matter, the overwhelming impression given bares little resemblance to the reality of women’s experiences.
Media myth is in danger of becoming received wisdom amongst the public and in Parliament and of driving legislative attacks on women’s rights.
The week of International Women’s Day is a good time for the labour movement to reassert the arguments for choice and to commit to defending women’s hard fought for rights against new attacks.
Access to birth control and abortion is crucial for women’s equality and is overwhelmingly supported in Britain.
A recent LSE study showed reproductive rights have transformed women’s lives, improving employment, educational and social prospects to a greater degree than equal pay and equal opportunities legislation.
There is no 100 per cent safe, reliable contraceptive and women will always need to be able to control their fertility. Only the woman is in a position to make a decision about whether or not to continue with an unwanted pregnancy, a decision that will transform her life.
The same is true for the small number of women who need to terminate their pregnancy at a later stage up to the 24 week time limit. The left must stand very clear on the issue of the upper-time limit. Very few women need later abortions and those who do, face exceptional and distressing circumstances and need the protection of the law. When a woman is forced to make a later decision – for example because of violent abuse, failure to diagnose pregnancy or serious welfare issues with an existing child – this is a fundamental question of a woman’s right to choose.
The push for a reduction in the legal time limit for abortion is driven by those who actually want to ban all abortion. They are following the US path of pushing for incremental restrictions, starting with later abortion, while working to weaken support for a woman’s right to choose.
There was great relief when, at the general election, Tony Blair ruled out the use of government legislation to restrict the law, but nearly all of the attacks on the 1967 Abortion Act have come via backbench Private Members Bills.
On 10th March the Commons will hear an extreme and unpopular Private Members Bill to criminalise abortion in all but the most exceptional circumstances. This serves as a timely warning of the real aims of the anti-choice lobby. Without a strong pro-choice movement to counter the anti-choice press momentum, future Private Members ballots could be used to push through a reduction in the legal time limit – the first step in restricting women’s crucial abortion rights.
Now is the time to stand up again to defend women’s right to choose. Abortion Rights, the national pro-choice campaign, is leading the defence of the upper time limit, bringing together trade unionists, MPs, journalists and women’s rights activists to defeat this attack. We urge all those who support women’s equality and health to support the campaign.
For more information, to join or to affiliate your organisation visit www.abortionrights.org.uk.