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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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It's not WhatsApp that was at fault in the Westminster attacks. It's our prisons

Britain's criminal justice system neither deterred nor rehabilitated Khalid Masood, and may even have facilitated his radicalisation. 

The dust has settled, the evidence has been collected and the government has decided who is to blame for the attack on Westminster. That’s right, its WhatsApp and their end-to-end encryption of messages. Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, wants tech companies to install a backdoor into messages like these that the government can then access.

There are a couple of problems here, not least that Adrian Russell aka Khalid Masood was known to the security services but considered to be low-risk. Even if the government had had the ability to gain entry to his WhatsApp, they wouldn’t have used it. Then there’s the fact that end-to-end encryption doesn’t just protect criminals and terrorists – it protects users from criminals and terrorists. Any backdoor will be vulnerable to attack, not only from our own government and foreign powers, but by non-state actors including fraudsters, and other terrorists.

(I’m parking, also, the question of whether these are powers that should be handed to any government in perpetuity, particularly one in a country like Britain’s, where near-unchecked power is handed to the executive as long as it has a parliamentary majority.)

But the biggest problem is that there is an obvious area where government policy failed in the case of Masood: Britain’s prisons system.

Masood acted alone though it’s not yet clear if he was merely inspired by international jihadism – that is, he read news reports, watched their videos on social media and came up with the plan himself – or he was “enabled” – that is, he sought out and received help on how to plan his attack from the self-styled Islamic State.

But what we know for certain is that he was, as is a recurring feature of the “radicalisation journey”, in possession of a string of minor convictions from 1982 to 2002 and that he served jail time. As the point of having prisons is surely to deter both would-be offenders and rehabilitate its current occupants so they don’t offend again, Masood’s act of terror is an open-and-shut case of failure in the prison system. Not only he did prison fail to prevent him committing further crimes, he went on to commit one very major crime.  That he appears to have been radicalised in prison only compounds the failure.

The sad thing is that not so very long ago a Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice was thinking seriously about prison and re-offending. While there was room to critique some of Michael Gove’s solutions to that problem, they were all a hell of a lot better than “let’s ban WhatsApp”. 

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