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The US anti-choice lobby makes Nadine Dorries look like Vera Drake, says Laurie Penny

To gain political capital, elected representatives are exploiting the national hysteria over abortion.

Work and pleasure having sent me to the US for a while, I spent last week stocking up on all the essentials of civilised life that are unaccountably hard to find in the land of the free: tea bags, antibiotics and a small arsenal of hormonal and emergency contraception. The latter is less a reflection of how lucky I expect to get over here than a mark of refusal to risk interference in my uterine arrangements by any health authority in the US, where the usual public discourse around a woman's right to choose makes Nadine Dorries look like Vera Drake.

On 8 November, the state of Mississippi voted No to a proposal (see Michael Brooks, Observations, 14 November) that would have granted blastocysts "personhood" rights equivalent to those of a living, breathing human being with a functioning brain and nervous system - in effect outlawing not only abortion, but also many forms of birth control, including the IUD, hormonal contraception and the "morning after" pill. A campaign spearheaded by the group Personhood USA seeks to write into federal law the hypothesis that human life begins at the moment of conception, and that the rights of four-celled prehumans trump the rights of women.

The intricate game of denying health care to women with unplanned pregnancies and forcing them to carry those pregnancies to term has long been the stuff on which political careers are built at state level. In many districts of the US, abortion is now legal in name only. With the "personhood" initiative, however, the stakes are raised still further, conjuring the very real possibility that women's rights could be rolled back to the 1940s and ensuring that, for women and girls, sex once again becomes a risky business.

What is stunning about the abortion debate in the US is not just the savagery of its disregard for the "personhood" of female citizens, but the cynical way in which elected representatives exploit what has become a national hysteria over abortion for political capital. In the US, a politician's stance on abortion rights is often a make-or-break matter with voters. It is no accident that so many of the states where Personhood USA expects to get its measures on to the ballot next year are the same key swing states - Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Ohio - that voted for George W Bush in 2004 but declared for Barack Obama in 2008.

Culture wars

Attacking contraception, abortion and any other hard-won provisions to ensure female sexual equality has come to replace coherent economic and political discussion in the US. This is a tactic developed in the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, when politicians across the English-speaking world sought to play to the perceived prejudices of voters to whom they had little else to offer.

Mitt Romney, the Republican front-runner, has proposed cutting off federal funds to Planned Parenthood, which provides birth control and other health services to millions of low-income women.

Instead of offering any sort of vision for a future for the US, conservatives are reverting to attacking vulnerable women and minorities. These new culture wars are a clear signal that neoliberalism is fast running out of ideas.

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

This article first appeared in the 21 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The myth of the Fourth Reich

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What Labour MPs who want to elect the shadow cabinet are forgetting

The idea is to push Jeremy Corbyn to build an ideologically broad team, but it distracts from the real hurdle – management.

Labour MPs who have been critical of Jeremy Corbyn are pushing to vote for shadow cabinet members – rather than having all the posts appointed by the leader.

Most of the parliamentary Labour party who are not Corbyn loyalists believe this should be the “olive branch” he offers them, in order to put his recent words about “unity” and “wiping the slate clean” into action.

Corbyn and his allies have refused to consider such an idea outside of a “wider” democratisation of the party – saying that Labour members should also get a say in who’s on the frontbench. It’s also thought Corbyn is reluctant due to the shadow cabinet having three representatives on the National Executive Committee. He wouldn’t want his opponents voting for those, tipping the balance of the Committee back towards centrists.

Shadow cabinet elections were a longstanding convention for Labour in opposition until Ed Miliband urged the party to vote against them in 2011. Labour MPs on different wings of the party believe a return to the system would avoid Labour’s frontbench being populated solely by Corbyn’s ideological wing.

But there is a complication here (aside from the idea of a party leader having to run an effective opposition with their opponents in key shadow cabinet positions).

Proponents of shadow cabinet elections say they would help to make Labour a broad church. But really they could put those in the “make-it-work” camp who initially helped form Corbyn’s team in a difficult position. Initially conciliatory MPs like Thangam Debonnaire and Heidi Alexander have since left their posts, revealing frustration more at Corbyn’s management style than policy direction. Chi Onwurah MP, who remains a shadow minister, has also expressed such concerns.

One senior Labour MP points out that the problem with shadow cabinet elections lies in those who left Corbyn’s shadow cabinet but had wanted to cooperate – not in bringing ideological opponents into the fold.

“There were lots of people on his team who actually liked Jeremy, and wanted to make policy with him,” they tell me. “And many of them eventually felt they had to leave because of how difficult it was to work with him. They wanted to stay but couldn’t. If people like that couldn’t stay, will they go back? It will be much harder for him to show them he can work differently.”

One of the “make-it-work” faction voices their concern about returning to the shadow cabinet via elections for this reason. “A lot of us [who left] are still really interested in our policy areas and would be happy to help if they asked,” they say. “But it was too difficult to be taken seriously when you were actually in those shadow cabinet meetings.”

My source describes a non-collegiate approach in meetings around the shadow cabinet table, where Corbyn would read out pre-written opening statements and responses when they delivered their ideas. “It was like he wasn’t really listening.”

The plan to reintroduce shadow cabinet elections barely left the ground in a meeting of Labour’s National Executive Committee on Saturday night, on the eve of Labour conference.

This is in spite of Labour MPs urging the NEC to make a decision on the matter soon. Jon Ashworth, an NEC member and shadow minister, told me shortly after Corbyn’s victory speech that this would be “a good way of bringing people back” in to the team, and was determined to “get some resolution on the issue” soon.

It doesn’t look like we’ll get that yet. But for some who have already tried serving on the frontbench, it’s a distraction from what is for them a management – rather than an ideological – problem.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.