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.

Biteback and James Wharton
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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.


Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.


Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.


Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.



Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”


Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.


In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.