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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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times