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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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How can London’s mothers escape the poverty trap?

Despite its booming jobs market, London’s poverty rate is high. What can be done about it?

Why are mothers in London less likely to work than their counterparts across the country, and how can we ensure that having more parents in jobs brings the capital’s high child poverty rates down?

The answers to these two questions, examined in a new CPAG report on parental employment in the capital, may become increasingly nationally significant as policymakers look to ensure jobs growth doesn’t stall and that a job becomes a more much reliable route out of poverty than it is currently – 64 per cent of poor children live in working families.

The choice any parent makes when balancing work and family life is deeply personal.  It’s a choice driven by a wide range of factors but principally by what parents, with their unique viewpoint, regard as best for their families. The man in Whitehall doesn’t know best.

But the personal is also political. Every one of these personal choices is shaped, limited or encouraged by an external context.   Are there suitable jobs out there? Is there childcare available that is affordable and will work for their child(ren)? And what will be the financial gains from working?

In London, 40 per cent of mothers in couples are not working. In the rest of the country, the figure is much lower – 27 per cent. While employment rates amongst lone parents in London have significantly increased in recent years, the proportion of mothers in couples out of work remains stuck at about 12 percentage points higher than the rest of the UK.

The benefits system has played a part in increasing London’s lone parent employment rate. More and more lone parents are expected to seek work. In 2008, there was no obligation on single parents to start looking for work until their youngest child turned 16. Now they need to start looking when their youngest is five (the Welfare Reform and Work Bill would reduce this down to three). But the more stringent “conditionality” regime, while significant, doesn’t wholly explain the higher employment rate. For example, we know more lone parents with much younger children have also moved into jobs.  It also raises the question of what sacrifices families have had to make to meet the new conditionality.  

Mothers in couples in London, who are not mandated to work, have not entered work to the same level as lone parents. So, what is it about the context in London that makes it less likely for mothers in couples to work? Here are four reasons highlighted in our report for policymakers to consider:

1. The higher cost of working in London is likely to play a significant role in this. London parents are much less likely to be able to call on informal (cheaper or free) childcare from family and friends than other parts in the country: only one in nine children in London receives informal childcare compared to an average of one in three for England. And London childcare costs for under 5s dwarf those in the rest of the country, so for many parents support available through tax credits is inadequate.

2. Add to this high housing and transport costs, and parents are left facing a toxic combination of high costs that can mean they see less financial rewards from their work than parents in other parts of the country.

3. Effective employment support can enable parents to enter work, particularly those who might have taken a break from employment while raising children. But whilst workless lone parents and workless couples are be able to access statutory employment support, if you have a working partner, but don’t work yourself, or if you are working on a low wage and want to progress, there is no statutory support available.

4. The nature of the jobs market in London may also be locking mums out. The number of part time jobs in the capital is increasing, but these jobs don’t attract the same London premium as full time work.  That may be partly why London mums who work are more likely to work full time than working mums in other parts of the country. But this leaves London families facing even higher childcare costs.

Parental employment is a thorny issue. Parenting is a 24-hour job in itself which must be balanced with any additional employment and parents’ individual choices should be at the forefront of this debate. Policy must focus on creating the context that enables parents to make positive choices about employment. That means being able to access the right support to help with looking for work, creating a jobs market that works for families, and childcare options that support child development and enable parents to see financial gains from working.

When it comes to helping parents move into jobs they can raise a family on, getting it right for London, may also go a long way to getting it right for the rest of the country.