Anti-abortionists need to recognise the lived experiences of women and the disabled

Right-wing commentators keep arguing for a tighter abortion law in the UK, ignoring the voices of those who would have to live with the consequences.

I do find it incredible when a person who is neither disabled or a woman gives their thoughts on a woman’s decision to abort a disabled foetus. Sorry, incredibly arrogant. (I always get that mixed up.)

Enter: Tim Montgomerie of the Times. For anyone who chose to spend the aftermath of Christmas Day in the blissful ignorance of a meat-induced coma, this week Tim decided to be the latest male journalist to dedicate a column to telling female readers what they should be doing with their bodies.

With the air of a man who had forgotten what to get the pro-lifer in his life for Christmas, Tim wrote an entire article advocating the reduction of women’s bodily rights based on anecdotes and feelings, rather than any scientific evidence. He told us he was keen on a law that requires pregnant women to look at pictures of foetuses before having an abortion, suggesting it would be a way of providing “informed consent” rather than, y’know, unimaginably cruel emotional manipulation. He avoided the fact that “tightening” abortion rights doesn’t so much reduce the number of women seeking abortions but increase the number of women who die when they have one.

As someone in possession of both a womb and a disability, however, it was Tim's thoughts on aborting foetuses with abnormalities that particularly stood out for me:

Many people are simply too frightened of having to raise a disabled child. Although the UK currently recognises that a 24-week-old foetus deserves the full protection of the law, this protection is not afforded to babies that might be disabled in some inadequately defined way.

Here I was thinking that whether or not to go ahead with a pregnancy if severe abnormalities had been detected was a complex decision made between a woman and medical professionals. Luckily for the disabled community, Tim was here to throw in his advice too!

I wondered though, had Tim thought about what would happen to all these severely disabled children born to parents who didn’t think they could cope with them? Forcing women to have children against their will is clearly a great idea but, it seems to me, anyone advocating that position – particularly when it comes to something as serious as severe disability – should have at least a vague idea of the consequences. What would all this mean for these disabled children? Enter Tim Montgomerie:

Right. Okay. What? Right. Well, this was very nice. Tim had seen a disabled child out in public just a few days prior to our conversation and he/she had sang him a song. I wondered what this had to do with anything.

Enter: Louise Mensch.

Right. Okay. It’s almost as if it was being suggested that the fact that disabled people (not one, but two!) can be happy was evidence no disabled foetus should ever be aborted. It’s almost as if the people who had charged themselves with defending the disabled had no understanding, or respect, for disability whatsoever.

It’s very easy to say it would be better if disabled foetuses could be treated equally to non-disabled ones. See, I’ll do it here. It would be better if disabled foetuses could be treated equally to non-disabled ones. You’re the hero! Who could disagree with you? Other people want to kill disabled babies. You want to defend their lives. It’s less easy to think about the next bit. The bit that comes after you’ve forced a woman to bring a child into the world that will require emotional, physical, and financial resources she told you she didn’t have.  

A woman in this sort of conversation is abstract; a thing separated from the complicated, messy reality. Disability is just the same. There is no life of a million long moments. There is no poverty. There is no pain or (as Tim gave no mention of disability’s impact on viability) there are no women giving birth only to watch their babies die. There is no sleeplessness. There is no guilt. There are no feeding tubes or hospital wards. Or cut services that leave you shouting and crying at the walls on your own.

It must be nice to be able to position yourself as protector of potential disabled children without having to do anything whatsoever for disabled children. If only women had that luxury. If only disabled people did.

I have to say, at this point, I’m quite tired of these sort of arguments. It’s beginning to feel just a bit insulting. I’m tired of being told we’re only talking about “modest tightening”, as if any removal of half the population’s bodily autonomy could be modest. I’m sick of being chastised for responding with “hysterics”, as if women are either not humans with feelings or should only have ones that come with suitable decorum.

I’m sick of people who it seems have no inkling of a disabled lived experience (bar seeing a disabled child at a carol service, that is) using disability as the manipulative hook to their own agenda. I’m sick of (notably non-disabled) people reducing a complicated, painful matter to simplicity and shock tactics.

I’m particularly sick of so-called protectors of the disabled being part of the same right-wing ideology that sees the disabled people who are already living, starved and humiliated. I’m sick of their concern for abortion’s impact on “society’s wider attitudes to disability”, as if they have not stood by all year as their party has, with near relish, stroked and fed it.

The UK’s current abortion law “has produced an alliance between anti-abortion and disability rights campaigners,” Tim concluded. The phrase ‘not in my name’, comes to mind. Trying to chip away at one marginalized group’s rights is one low. Using another marginalized group to do it, is another.

A pro-choice protest in Westminster, 20 May 2008. (Photo: Getty)

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.