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Laurie Penny: An ideological case for abortion on demand.

Women shouldn’t apologise for having surgery.

When will women be allowed to stop apologising for having abortions? This week, news came in that 34 per cent of women who terminated pregnancies in 2009 had already had one termination -- including "dozens" of teenage girls on their third abortion. Seven dozen, in fact, totalling a huge 0.04 per cent of all terminations.

Conservative commentators wasted no time lathering themselves into a foam of moral approbation, declaring the statistics an "appalling" demonstration of "the failure of . . . values-free sex education" and raising concerns that "abortion is being used as a form of contraception".

"These statistics are tragic," said one American source. Are they really? With teenage abortions rising at roughly the same rate as teenage births are falling, the new statistics could be viewed as cause to celebrate that fewer young women are bringing unwanted children into the world. For the moral minority, whose ideal solution to teenage pregnancy seems to be the confinement of all girl-children in windowless cells until their wedding day, acknowledging that abortion can have positive ramifications is a stumbling block -- but the 76 per cent of Britons who are pro-choice have been slow to argue that not every abortion is an occasion for abject contrition.

Even the feminist left has a tendency to triangulate on abortion. At a pro-choice rally in October 2008, I was disappointed to hear the current Labour leadership candidate Diane Abbott declare that "every abortion is a tragedy". Abbott, who tabled amendments to the 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill to extend legal abortion to women in Northern Ireland, is uncomplicatedly a pro-choice hero -- yet even she seemed to feel a need to justify women's right to control their own bodies on the basis of remorse.

The notion that repeat abortions in particular are "tragic" cuts to the heart of liberal-conservative moral posturing on the issue. One abortion might just be permissible, but only as long as the woman in question feels sad about it for the rest of her life and never does it again. An ideological carapace of secrecy and shame still encases public discussion of abortion, and the right-wing press is careful to paint women who have multiple terminations as heartless, amoral strumpets.

According to the finger-jabbing conservative commentariat, abortion has become a sexy "lifestyle" option, with teenage girls popping in for quick terminations between geography and double maths, reading emails and filing their nails while hunky doctors carry out the procedure with sparkly pink surgical implements. In the real world, abortion is a painful inconvenience. Smilarly, appendectomy, the most common occasion for minor surgery, is not considered a "tragedy", but nor is it the social event of the season. There are many reasons why a woman might find herself in need of a second or third termination, from a history of abuse, to bad luck, to simple carelessness. None of these should be reasons to withhold abortion as a health-care service.

"I've had two abortions, at different times in my life and for different reasons," said Anna, 34. "If one believes in the right to choose, then as far as I'm concerned, that right doesn't disappear after you've chosen once. It's not a fun procedure, and ideally no one would have to have it, but to make moral judgements about someone who's done it more than once is to make a judgement on the existence of the procedure at all."

The NHS is not a moral arbiter, and doctors never refuse to treat addicts, alcoholics, or gang members who acquire wounds in senseless combat. Only women with unwanted pregnancies are obliged to justify their health-care decisions before receiving treatment.

The legal status of abortion in Britain is so encrusted with misogynist moral debris that, four decades after legalisation, women still have to obtain permission from not one, but two doctors, a legal requirement that delays the process, wastes NHS time and prolongs the unnecessary fear and anxiety associated with seeking abortion in Britain today.

"The worst part of the whole ordeal was obtaining the abortion -- going from doctor to doctor, getting two signatures, worrying I wouldn't be able to get an appointment," says Dawn, 23, who had a termination last year. "I felt as though my body didn't belong to me because I hadn't been able to control my fertility despite my best efforts -- I was on the implant. The thought of having to have a child I didn't want was terrifying."

Like many women, Dawn has never regretted her abortion, saying that "after the procedure I felt that I had control of my life again. I never felt that I should have done anything differently. All I felt was relief, not tragedy."

Many women do feel sadness or grief after having an abortion, and those feelings deserve respect. However, to state that "every abortion is a tragedy" undermines the plethora of powerful arguments for choice. Reproductive health care should not be a source of shame. With British women's right to make decisions about their own bodies under threat from pro-life pundits within Westminster, now is the time for the pro-choice lobby to cease pandering to conservative propaganda and start building an ideological case for abortion on demand.

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Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.