Maria Miller’s abortion stance means she’s no friend to women

Zoe Stavri argues that the women's minister's focus on reducing the abortion time limit is either misguided or disingenuous.

Lowering the abortion time limit is a key flashpoint in ongoing attempts to chip away at a woman’s right to choose. Politicians and commentators alike will periodically propose that the abortion time limit- currently at 24 weeks- should be reduced to 12, or 16, or 20 weeks.

Among proponents of this is the recently-appointed women’s minister, Maria Miller, whose voting record shows support for reducing the abortion time limit. She has also clarified her position in an interview, saying if the issue came up she’d vote for a reduction of the time limit again.

Miller’s role in government is supposedly to prioritise women’s issues in government. However, her views on the abortion time limit are anything but pro-women, and should not be prioritised as they are actively harmful.

UK abortion law currently allows women access to abortion at any time up to 24 weeks, though the vast, vast majority of abortions carried out take place 3-9 weeks of gestation, with only 1.4 per cent being carried out at over 20 weeks.

This reflects advances in helping women access abortion quickly and safely. However, on average, there is still an average waiting time of 2-4 weeks between seeing a doctor and getting an abortion on the NHS.

This waiting time can easily make the difference between a legal and an illegal abortion, and would be exacerbated were the time limit to be reduced.

The fact that Maria Miller focuses on reduction of the abortion time limit rather than further improving women’s access to abortion suggests she is either misguided or disingenuous. To support women, you must support the choices they make about their own body, whether it’s something you approve of or not.

The last thing we need is greater restrictions on access to abortion: we need greater freedom and greater support to allow women to make choices concerning their own bodies. This isn’t what Miller stands for. Because of this, she is no friend of women, and unsuitable for her position as women’s minister.

The new Minister for Women and Equalities, Maria Miller. Photograph: Getty Images
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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt