Abortion: defend women’s right to choose

Front pages showing a 12-week old foetus sucking its thumb, appearing to smile and all but dancing a jig in the womb; a legal challenge to doctors who aborted a 20-week-old foetus with a cleft palate; another ‘miracle’ baby thriving at 22 weeks’ gestation – this is the emotional and meretricious climate in which the government is to review the 1967 Abortion Act, with a view to revising the time limit from the current 24 weeks to 22. Cat Alison reports.

The review is needed, we are told, because medical advances mean an increasing number of premature babies are now viable at 24 weeks, albeit with high rates of brain damage or disability. Although only around 2% of the 180,000 abortions performed in Britain each year are carried out after 20 weeks, attacking ‘late’ abortions has always been a favoured tactic of the anti-choice movement. What has long been missing from the ‘pro-choice’ response has been a clear championing of abortion as a right, available free and on demand, for all women, irrespective of individual reasons.

The corollary is to fight for conditions where women, in particular working class women, have a real choice about reproduction: that is, where contraception is free, safe and accessible, where free, quality childcare is available around the clock and where having children does not condemn women to low-paid, temporary, part-time work or eking out a living on benefits. In a society where women with children – especially single mothers – make up the poorest strata, condemning one in three children in Britain to grow up in poverty, it is no wonder that one in three women will at some point in her life have an abortion. This, coupled with lack of adequate housing or play facilities for children means that in reality choice exists only for the middle classes, who have always been able to pay for nurseries, nannies, cleaners and so on – or to opt for terminations in private clinics, whatever the legal status of abortion. Before the 1967 Act, the majority of women who died in their hundreds from botched backstreet or self-inflicted abortions or were maimed and criminalised, were poor working class women.

The Abortion Act itself remains only a partial victory. Its provisions were never extended to the north of Ireland. Nor does it confer an automatic right to abortion, even in cases of rape. Two medical practitioners are needed to certify that pregnancy poses a greater risk to the physical or mental health of a woman than a termination. Anti-abortion GPs, uncooperative consultants, NHS waiting lists of up to two months and inadequate funding of NHS abortion services mean 25% of women in England and Wales end up having to go private.
But the biggest failure of the pro-choice campaign has been, since 1990 when the time limit was reduced from 28 weeks to 24, to accept foetal viability as the ultimate determinant of the right to abortion. Those who accept this argument ultimately place the rights of a conglomeration of cells over the rights of women.

In Parliament, it took a Conservative MP, Teresa Gorman, to point out that those who oppose abortion ‘regard women as little more than flower pots in which future generations of children...are reared. Time and time again, we hear people pay lip-service to a woman’s rights in this, yet when it comes down to it they legislate to give priority to the rights of the foetus that she carries. Whatever time limit they come up with...their motivation is to prevent a woman from controlling her fertility’.

Labour has refused to permit parliamentary debate on the issue, after making it clear during its 1997 election campaign that it would not be the party of choice. When in 1998 a New Labour MP indicated she would table a bill to allow abortion on request in early pregnancy, she was persuaded by senior Labour politicians not to. Blair himself is opposed to abortion.

Anti-abortionists are, fundamentally, anti-women. They hide behind talk of ‘morality’ and ‘the balance of human rights’, but their concerns are restricted to those of the ‘unborn child’, the foetus. And yet it is groups like this that campaign vociferously against adequate sex education, contraception and fertility treatment. One has only to look to the United States for more extreme examples, fuelled by far-right Christian fundamentalism. On his first day in office in January 2001, George W Bush reimposed Reagan’s Global Gag rule on women worldwide. This policy restricts organisations that receive USAID funds for family planning programmes using their own, non-US funds to provide legal abortion services or indeed any abortion information whatsoever, including in some cases contraception. It is estimated that lack of funds for global birth control programmes resulted in 52 million unwanted pregnancies last year. Yet the US is quite happy to maim, murder and starve real live children the world over. In the US itself, funding for family planning has been slashed; the federal courts are being stacked with anti-abortion nominees. Attorney General John Ashcroft is trying to force through a ban on partial-birth late abortions, and the state is gearing up for a Supreme Court challenge to Roe v Wade, the landmark ruling that legalised abortion in the US. These are the same people who oppose state programmes to guarantee prenatal care and nutrition programmes for pregnant women and supported the cutting of welfare payments to women who have more than one child. Moreover, so great is their commitment to the sanctity of human life that in the last 25 years there have been over 80,000 acts of violence against abortion clinics including seven murders.

But, vitally, in the United States, women are organising to defend their rights. On 25 April 2004, more than a million people took part in a March for Women’s Lives in Washington. We need to learn from them and organise too, around some basic rights: free and safe contraception, free abortion on demand and free, accessible, 24-hour childcare would be a good place to start.

FRFI 181 October / November 2004


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