Celebrating women’s lives

Anne Quesney, Director of Abortion Rights, calls for progressive reform of the abortion law, while c

This year marks the 40th anniversary of a vote, which transformed women’s lives. The 1967 Abortion Act effectively put an end to decades of dangerous back-street abortions in Britain. It saved the lives and health of thousands of women and to this day remains fundamental to women’s autonomy and equality.

Four decades on, a staggering 83 per cent of UK citizens agree that a woman should have the right to have an abortion. But unlike many of their European sisters, British women do not have the right to choose, per se. Under the 1967 Act they require the permission of two doctors before they can access the procedure - a process that can lead to delays for women at a vulnerable time. Women in Northern Ireland are excluded altogether.

Kat Stark’s experience illustrates the unnecessary barriers women continue to face when needing to access an abortion - “The first doctor I went to refused to refer me for an abortion. He kept asking me how I had gotten pregnant and eventually told me to leave the surgery and think about it for a while - even though I was totally sure about what I wanted to do. It was a week before I realised that I was entitled to go and seek another opinion.”

Forty years on it surely is time for a law that trusts women with this very personal and sometimes difficult decision. Abortion Rights, the national pro-choice campaign, wanted to know whether this situation is supported by people in Britain and commissioned an NOP opinion poll to examine this. It found that a clear majority (52 per cent) believe that a woman seeking an abortion should need the approval of either one or of no doctor at all, indicating that there is a growing appetite for reforming the law.

The results echo the views from the medical profession - the British Medical Association, The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Royal College of Nursing - who unanimously support the removal of two doctors’ signatures in the first trimester.

So all is well you would think. Not so. As we prepare to celebrate women’s hard fought for rights and advocate for reform and better service provision, a vociferous anti-choice minority is plugging away to turn the clock back. But its disingenuous and relentless focus on later abortion and fetal viability is likely to be exposed in the Commons Science and Technology Committee report to be published next week.

Later abortions are rare – less than two per cent of the total – and are desperately needed by women facing difficult circumstances: women who weren’t showing any pregnancy signs, women who were using contraception, young women in denial, women who discover at the 20 week scan that the foetus was severely impaired, women who suffer domestic violence, women who are delayed by the system and the list goes on. This tactic of focusing on later abortion, the least common of abortion procedures, is part of a step by step approach to making all abortion illegal.

But criminalising abortion does not make it go away, it makes it unsafe and it kills women - 68,000 die every year worldwide. A recent Guttemacher Institute & World Health Organisation study published in the Lancet showed very clearly that abortion occurs at approximately the same rate where it is broadly legal as where it is highly restricted by law.

In countries, such as Belgium and Holland, where more liberal abortion laws go hand is hand with comprehensive sex and relationships education and easy access to contraception and emergency contraception, the incidence of abortion is lower. Anyone with a serious interest in reducing the number of unintended pregnancies should follow that lead.

In the next few months abortion rights will be debated in Parliament as part of the government’s Human Tissue and Embryos Bill. Now is the time for the quieter majority to be heard and for our elected representatives to ensure that women’s rights to self-determination are recognised and better protected through progressive reform of the abortion law.

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State