Abortion rights under attack

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The past few months have seen an increase in ‘pro-life’ protests, underhand government moves to force through regressive amendments and high-profile smear campaigns; an ideological offensive against abortion is underway. These campaigns are led by a section of the ruling class intent on rolling back women’s rights. Sexual health education is coming under the same attack, ensuring that access to independent advice and evidence is absent from the start.

In February an undercover reporter for the Daily Telegraph set out with a camera and a scenario to find doctors who would authorise an abortion based on the sex of the foetus. Finding three who asked no further questions and consented, the paper published a series of inflammatory, misleading articles condemning apparent widespread malpractice. This opened the intended floodgate; women’s choice and abortion came under attack in further articles by the right-wing media, paving the way for a high-profile investigation led by Secretary of State for Health Andrew Lansley.

On Lansley’s orders, the supposedly independent Care Quality Commission was forced to stop its usual work and instead perform spot checks on abortion clinics. During the absurd process, focused on finding authorisation forms pre-signed by doctors, allegations appeared in the Daily Telegraph before the inspections had even concluded: ‘a “shocking” number may be breaking the law...Lansley...said he was “shocked”.’ All this shock was intended to hide the fact that this was a politically-motivated investigation aiming to vilify abortion. Activists, providers, and women’s organisations immediately discredited the media and Lansley. Inevitably, the investigation’s eventual findings were not greeted with the same media interest.

Lansley is of course acting as part of a wider section of the ruling class, intent on pushing through anti-choice reform within a broader attack on working class women. Despite the defeat of Nadine Dorries’ high-profile attack on abortion (see FRFI 223), the proposals remain at the heart of planned changes. Under-Secretary of State for Health Anne Milton was clear from the start: ‘the government supports the spirit of the amendments, and we intend to present proposals for regulations after consultation’. Organisations such as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) were right to worry that changes would go ahead regardless. Storming out of a meeting in January, shadow public health minister Diane Abbott said: ‘the “consultation” will be a front for driving through the anti-choice lobbyists’ preferred option without legislation or a debate on the floor of the House.’ Accordingly, women are denied the right to control their bodies, and the public left uninformed of what this means for changes in choice and provision.

Lansley’s concern that ‘women don’t get the appropriate level of pre-abortion support and counselling’ is false; it is that very service that the amendments threaten to take away, to be replaced by ‘pro-life’, unqualified counsellors. Dorries’ worry for ‘vulnerable women, particularly those with mild mental health issues’ is a disgusting lie. A familiar rhetoric of bourgeois morality, shame and secrecy is espoused by protest groups and individuals who are increasingly aggressive in their methods. A hacker recently targeted the BPAS website, planning to release the details of 10,000 women. Using tactics long seen in US anti-choice campaigns, groups such as the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) have been given free rein by the government and the media to harass, film and intimidate women entering clinics.

Finally, the education system is increasingly opened to pro-life groups; SPUC, Life and Lovewise are being invited into schools to discuss sex, abortion and relationships. Crucially, they offer no evidence for their opinions; children are incorrectly taught that abortions increase the risk of breast cancer and infertility. Sexual health services that could counter this misinformation campaign are having their hours cut, or being closed down, increasingly limiting young people’s access to factual information and support.

Dorries had the arrogance to claim that, in order to appease ‘middle England’ and make them forget the cuts, the government should push further with its oppressive measures and reduce the upper limit at which abortion takes place, from 24 to 20 weeks. This, she argued, would mean ‘the government wouldn’t simply be reassuring the Christian community, they would send a message to the whole of the UK that they are serious about women’s health’. Women and men are starting to take to the streets to counter this false and chauvinistic position, opposing demonstrations held by groups such as SPUC, and vastly outnumbering them.

It is vital to keep opposing such attacks and to expose the ruling class’ interest in controlling women’s health, and how this grip tightens in times of capitalist crisis. We must also expose the links between the attack on abortion, and the wider attacks on women, from childcare to unemployment – and continue to resist.

Rachel Francis

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 227 June/July 2012