50 years since the Abortion Act - Still no choice for working class women

On 27 October 2017 it will be 50 years since the Abortion Act became law. The many events and press coverage marking the anniversary generally agree that while the Act was a hugely important step forward for women in Britain, it is not fit for purpose. However, legislation is far from the only reason getting an abortion is still a problem for women. Conditions for the working class – the devastating attacks on services, living standards and benefits which hit women hardest, the increasing isolation and responsibility for childrearing with little support – is missing from these discussions. We must be clear that these cannot be separated, and that abortion is not a question of choice for the working class.

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The DUP and the fight for abortion rights in the north of Ireland

abortion right

UPDATE: In June 2017, the Supreme Court upheld the High Court ruling of May 2014, detailed below, which denies women from the north of Ireland provision of an abortion free of charge by the NHS in England. The judges rejected the appeal with a three to two majority, with those dismissing the case reporting their ‘respect to the democratic decision of the people of Northern Ireland' and arguing that accepting the appeal would increase ‘health tourism’ and ‘a near collapse of the edifice of devolved health services’.

Encouraged by the decision of the two judges who recognised their appeal however, the women are planning to file an application with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ‘to protect the human rights of the many other women who make the lonely journey to England every week because they are denied access to basic healthcare services in their own country'.

At a time of Tory negotiations with the anti-abortion Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), of ever-increasing restrictions, checks and charges for NHS used more widely for migrants, refugees and visitors, and of restrictions to funding for women’s health charities, access to free and safe abortion and wider care is increasingly under attack. Working class women unable to pay for private care will continue to struggle – and the demand for free, safe accessible abortion for all must continue.

The original case details

'She was able to access such services, albeit they were those provided privately by an independent clinic, outside the NHS for a fee, and no obstacles were put in her way in this regard' - Mr Justice King at the High Court ruling. 

In this High Court ruling in London on 8 May 2014, Mr Justice King reaffirmed that women from the north of Ireland are not entitled to an abortion free of charge provided by the NHS in England. In the Six Counties, abortion remains a criminal act. Access to an abortion remains entirely dependent on the ability to pay for travel, accommodation, and a private procedure. The verdict was a blunt dismissal of the realities of poverty, work, childcare and lack of reproductive health rights for working class women.

The case was brought to court by a young woman who wanted to stop NHS abortions from being withheld from women in the north of Ireland. Pregnant at 15, she had struggled to raise the money necessary for her own abortion in England, despite the support of her mother and the Abortion Support Network. The case challenged the use of private clinics where prices range from £400-£2000 and whilst a victory would have meant women would still have to pay to travel for abortion, it would have set an important precedent. The number of women seeking abortions after 20 weeks with help from Abortion Support Network stands at 7% in the north of Ireland, compared to 1.4% in England. Women unable to consider the cost of an abortion or travel face the cost of rearing a child they know they cannot afford in a society that increasingly offers judgment and isolation rather than support.

A letter from the Secretary of State for Health in England, Jeremy Hunt, was presented during the case: 'The NHS should not fund services for residents of Northern Ireland which Northern Ireland’s Assembly has deliberately decided not to legislate to provide, and which would be unlawful if provided in Northern Ireland.' His position is clear: a woman's postcode, and the law that appears to follow her to England, comes before her health needs. In addition, the 1861 law governing abortion in the north of Ireland has yet again been validated in an overwhelming confirmation of the status quo. The High Court concluded that Hunt had fulfilled his obligation to ensure accessible abortion, asserting that access to health care should be determined by ability to pay. 

A legal abortion is almost impossible to obtain within the north of Ireland, even for women who have been raped, or when there are fatal foetal abnormalities. The options are limited and have serious consequences keeping an unwanted pregnancy, seeking a potentially dangerous illegal abortion and risking criminalisation, or to travel. More than 1,000 women each year travel from the north of Ireland to access abortion.

The need to travel for abortion is an international issue, with Department for Health figures showing that 5,850 non-resident women had abortions in Britain in 2012. Women from Catholic countries where abortion rights are limited have to travel hundreds of miles from all over Europe. Spain is introducing yet more restrictive legislation on abortion rights which will force an estimated 30,000 women to travel and many more to undergo dangerous ‘backstreet’ abortions. For many working class women, especially asylum seekers, in places such as Spain and the Six Counties the option to travel does not exist. Mara Clarke, founder of Abortion Support Network, explains the situation well: 'Women with money have options, women without money have babies.' 

Access to abortion is first and foremost a matter of class in a system where 'choice' is defined by ability to pay. The demand at the heart of the hearing was free, accessible health care for all the answer a resounding 'no'. The young woman in the Six Counties plans to appeal – and the wider struggle will continue.

Rachel Francis

Newcastle: No to cuts to domestic violence services!


In 2014, Newcastle council began an 18-month procurement process, putting out key domestic violence services out to tender. In May 2016, it announced that the contract had been awarded to Thirteen Care and Support, a not-for-profit charitable subsidiary of Thirteen Group, the biggest group of housing associations in the region. Whilst much has been made of the council's £1.6m capital investment for new domestic violence accommodation in partnership with Thirteen Care, the existing refuge provided by Newcastle Women's Aid faces imminent closure.

Thirteen Care and Support was only founded two years ago, whereas Newcastle Women's Aid (NWA) has 40 years of expertise and experience in supporting victims of domestic violence, and their refuge employs some of the most specialised staff in the country. NWA is a specialist local service run by women, for women and their children. In 2014 the NWA refuge was awarded a stage one Women's Aid Federation England national quality standards award, recognising this specialisation. In contrast Thirteen Care is currently advertising jobs which don’t require previous experience in domestic violence services, including a full-time apprentice who will be paid a measly £6,366 a year for a 37-hour week. Specialist domestic violence workers are being replaced with 'independent living workers', support for working women not eligible for housing benefit is set to be cut, and no proper transfer plan for women using the current refuge has been made available. Further details on the transition are murky, however one thing is crystal clear, despite the council's spin and a shiny new building, the new contract will result in a loss of specialisation for domestic violence services.

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Suffragette: The struggle for women’s rights

• Suffragette, directed by Sarah Gavron, 2015, 106 mins

Working-class women resisting insufferable working conditions and stifling home lives is a welcome sight on the big-screen. Suffragette offers us glimpses of this in powerful and moving scenes. However, the film ultimately seeks to gloss over the very questions this focus begins to raise. Infuriating, yes – but it is difficult not to be inspired by the will of women who must and do resist, by any means necessary.

‘I can’t take that any more’

The film’s focus on Maud, a fictionalised laundry worker, promises a welcome departure from the usual starched dresses and purple and green sashes associated with the Suffragettes. Instead, we see the appalling conditions of the laundry – the back-breaking, dangerous work that women perform for longer hours and less pay than male workers. They return home to cramped, damp, one-up-one-down housing to face housework, cooking and caring for the children. There is little in the way of support, family planning and childcare. We see women’s lack of legal rights over the care of their children. Sexual violence is commonplace. The solidarity and opposition that grows and strengthens throughout the film is a much-needed example of the necessary resistance beyond the ballot box.

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Welfare cuts hit women hardest

The 2015 July Budget was a savage attack on working class women. In FRFI 244, we reported that of the £26bn cut through tax and benefit reforms since 2010, £22bn has been taken from women – a total of 85%. Women will yet again bear the brunt of austerity. Of the £9.6 billion to be taken from the poorest families, £7 billion – 70% – will come from women. Through it all, the ruling class continues to conjure up a world far from reality. Prime Minister David Cameron presents the Tories as ‘the real party for working people: giving everyone in our country the chance to get on, with the dignity of a job, the pride of a pay cheque, a home of their own and the security and peace of mind that comes from being able to support a family’. He neatly describes the direct opposite of the experience of working class women and families up and down the country.

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