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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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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a united force.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will continue.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.