Abortion Rights can never be taken for granted and we should never be complacent about the fact that what rights we do have are constantly under attack.
The latest of these attacks has come designed to deliberately divide and undermine pro-choice activists. What makes these attacks particularly pernicious is that they co opted the language of feminism in an attempt to reduce womens’ ability to control their own bodies.
The 1967 Abortion Act provided an absolutely literal lifeline to women, saving the lives of millions of women from backstreet abortions and forced pregnancy. It is not an ideal piece of legislation, indeed it is paternalistic in that it requires two doctors signatures and assumes that women can not decide for themselves to have an abortion. At Abortion Rights we believe in abortion on demand.
Since the anti abortion lobby have been steadily losing the argument for taking away women’s bodily autonomy, with a consistent three quarters of the UK public believing in a woman’s right to choose, they have resorted to a different approach.
Since the passing of the 1967 Abortion Act the anti-choice lobby have been trying to attack access to abortion by multiple methods. These include restricting term limits and making it harder to access abortion and non judgemental support under the guise of ‘independent’ counselling. Nadine Dorries MP tried to prevent family planning clinics and abortion providers from being able to provide pregnant women with counselling about their options and enable ‘independent’ anti-choice counselling services to be able to instead. There have been repeated attacks on the abortion term limits in attempts to reduce the time periods women can access abortions.
One of the latest tactics has been the constant harassment of women and staff at abortion clinics in attempts to close down the clinics. One particularly bad example of this was the harassment at the BPAS clinic in Blackfriars which considered closing down due to the extreme levels of harassment.
In December 2014 we had Fiona Bruce MP enter the equation. Bruce is the chair of the All–Party Parliamentary Pro–Life Group and she submitted a ten minute rule bill to ‘clarify’ the illegality of an abortion sought on the ground of sex of the foetus. The first reading of the bill only had 1 MP vote against it and 181 in favour. I think it is fair to say that pro choice MPs (apart from Glenda Jackson MP) at the debate were fooled by the pretence of a feminist motivation of the bill. Reni Eddo Lodge wrote a powerful piece in the Telegraph about how criminalising gender abortion is sinister and wrong, which upset various anti choice activists. In January 2015, Bruce suddenly withdrew the bill and instead submitted an amendment to the Serious Crime Bill which was going through parliament.
The amendment read ‘Nothing in section 1 of the abortion act 1967 is to be interpreted as allowing a pregnancy to be terminated on the grounds of sex of the unborn child’. A campaign group called ‘Stop Gendercide’ which claimed to be a pro-choice organisation (despite little information about its funding and almost no relationships with groups outside the anti choice groups) was very vocal in support of Bruce’s amendment. At this stage the bill was returning to be voted on in the House of Commons for considerations of amendments, which if carried would be taken to the House of Lords for a vote.
Abortion Rights along with other pro-choice organisations started to mobilise against the amendment. We set up an email-your-MP tool enabling people to ask their MP to vote against the amendment and put out letters to MPs and press releases talking about the Trojan horse element of this issue.
Indeed one of the best ways to understand the situation came from this rather honest quote in 2008 by Steven Mosher who is the head of the conservative, anti choice Population Research Institute:
‘I propose that we- the pro life movement- adopt as our next goal the banning of sex and race selective abortion. By formally protecting all female foetuses from abortion on he grounds of their sex, we would plant in the law the proposition that the developing child is a being whose claims on us should not depend on their sex’.
Fiona MacTaggart MP read this very quote out in Parliament during the debate when she was explaining that the amendment was a Trojan Horse which is designed to undermine abortion rights.
Had the amendment passed it would have done 3 things:
- Give a foetus status in UK law as an ‘unborn child’ thus introducing a specific prohibition that trumps the wellbeing and life of the woman
- Make vulnerable women more vulnerable by creating a barrier to women being able to talk to their doctors in confidence and seeking support
- Make doctors more cautious about authorising abortions as a way of making it harder for women to get the abortions they need
After more than 1,000 people emailed their MP asking them to vote against the amendment and furious lobbying by Abortion Rights in conjunction with other pro-choice and women’s organisations, the Labour Party chose to whip on the issue with Yvette Cooper contacting all Labour MPs to ask them to vote against the amendment. Abortion rights had a press photo call with Diane Abott MP on the morning of the vote and put out quotes from Abbott and Glenda Jackson MP about why they were opposing the amendment.
On the day of the vote David Cameron announced he did not support the amendment and Ann Coffey Labour MP submitted an alternative amendment calling for an investigation into whether there was actually a significant problem the issue and if so, what might be the best way to deal with it. This amendment was presumably tabled to allow more unsure Labour MPs to vote down Bruce’s amendment, despite the anti-choice attempts to find evidence of sex selective abortion failing to prove anything of the sort. Labour women MPs and Jane Ellison MP representing the Government spoke against the amendment while Fiona Bruce, Tory and DUP men MPs spoke in favour of it. The amendment fell with 201 votes in favour and 292 against.
There was discussion in the debate about the fact that the amendment would not address the underlying issues driving preference for boys and would cause complications for women seeking terminations for reasons including the sex of the foetus in relation to genetic disorders. While we defeated the amendment and Bruce chose not to come back into the chamber after her amendment was defeated, the tactics pro-choice MPs used to defend the abortion act often rested on asserting that abortion on the ground of sex were abhorrent which it itself leads us into territory of deciding right and wrong reasons for abortions.
Abortion rights believes only pregnant women have that right to decide what is right for their body. We will need to focus on reestablishing this principle of the right to choose not grading right and wrong reasons for abortion. Less than two weeks after Bruce’s amendment fell, Mark Pritchard MP tabled a ten minute rule bill to reduce the term limit (which has since been withdrawn).
We may have won the battle this time but we have to remain focused and vigilant to the next attack or we may well end up lose the war.
Join the fight and join Abortion Rights now!
Kelley Temple, Abortion Rights Executive Member