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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.

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.