An anti-abortion campaigner in Belfast. The 1967 Abortion Act does not apply in Nothern Ireland. Photo: Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images
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Since 1967, gay activists have piled up victories - but abortion rights are fragile and constantly attacked

In this parliament, campaigners will again attempt to chip away at abortion rights - but will the new leaders of Labour and the Lib Dems have the stomach to fight them?

If there is ever a Channel 5 clip show called Britain’s Best Progressive Years, 1967 would walk it. It was the year that the Abortion Act was passed and we decriminalised homosexuality. Ever since, there has been a tendency to assume that they follow parallel trajectories. But is that really the case?

This April, Katha Pollitt argued in the Nation that, in America, “reproductive rights [are] losing while gay rights are winning”. While Indiana failed to enshrine opposition to gay marriage in law, legislation is “forcing abortion clinics to close; and absurd, even medically dangerous restrictions are heaping up in state after state”. A similar situation has played out in Ireland, which legalised gay marriage in a referendum on 22 May, while abortion is still illegal unless the woman’s life is at risk.

You can already see the same dynamic here: Northern Ireland has never accepted the Abortion Act 1967 but it recognises civil partnerships (although not full gay marriage). Who will take a bet that it will institute marriage equality before it liberalises its abortion laws? Politically, giving legal recognition to monogamous love is a far easier sell than offsetting the negative consequences of sex. (No one gets an abortion cake.) Meanwhile, the status quo causes misery: at the time of writing, a Northern Irish mother in her thirties is awaiting trial for procuring “poison” – the drug mifepristone – for her pregnant daughter online.

And let’s not be complacent about access to abortion in England and Wales. Although the 1967 act is unlikely to face a frontal assault, a small group of MPs is chipping away at its foundations. In 2011 Nadine Dorries attempted to stop independent abortion providers from also giving NHS-funded counselling; this year Fiona Bruce, the MP for Congleton, introduced an amendment to the Serious Crime Bill to criminalise sex-selective abortion. It was sold as a “clarification” of the existing law but its real purpose appeared to be smuggling a reference to the “unborn child” on to the statute book, something campaigners see as a first step towards giving the foetus “personhood”, a legal status of its own. It was Ireland’s personhood laws that caused the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012 after she sought hospital treatment for a miscarriage at 17 weeks caused by a bacterial infection. In order to try to save the foetus, doctors refused to give her an abortion. She died of septic shock.

Any attempt to enshrine a foetus’s legal rights in law inevitably involves reducing the woman’s rights. Once that happens, all her behaviour during pregnancy is potentially criminal do we prosecute her for taking drugs, or drinking too much, for riding a horse or eating rare steak, if any of those ­actions leads to the loss of the foetus?

For me, the best way to reduce abortions is to address the reasons a woman might need one. We need better access to contraception, better sex education, and help for those who are in abusive relationships or trying to escape controlling families.

Official population data shows no evidence that sex-selective abortion is happening here in Britain, even in minority communities. So we should see interventions such as Fiona Bruce’s for what they are: an attempt to undermine the 1967 act under the guise of protecting the vulnerable. Since the election, Bruce has already asked seven written parliamentary questions on abortion. As well as hammering away at sex selection, she is challenging the provision of abortion on the grounds of disability.

As a result, campaigners think the time has come to shift from rebuttals and rearguard action to arguing for liberalising the law further, and lobbying for measures such as buffer zones around abortion clinics to stop women being shouted at or filmed on their way in. As Katherine O’Brien of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service tells me: “We spent a lot of the last parliament trying to defend the status quo. But we don’t think the status quo works for women.”

Yet despite the latest British Social Attitudes survey finding that two-thirds of us support abortion if a woman “does not wish to have the child” – in effect, abortion on demand – parliament is unlikely to be receptive. Because of what O’Brien calls a “noisy minority”, and because evangelical Christians have seized on the issue, “being pro-choice is seen by some MPs as dangerous – it’s putting your head over the parapet”.

Most members of the cabinet support a lower time limit on terminations: when the issue was last debated in 2008, only George Osborne and Theresa Villiers supported the current 24 weeks. David Cameron, ­Theresa May and Iain Duncan Smith voted for a 20-week limit, while Jeremy Hunt, now Health Secretary, wanted just 12 weeks.

Still, you might think, at least we can rely on Labour and the Liberal Democrats. But the front-runners in both leadership races are committed Christians with often socially conservative voting records. Andy Burnham opposed IVF for lesbians where the child would not have a “father figure”, for instance. (He did, however, vote against lowering abortion term limits in 2008.) The Lib Dems’ Tim Farron contrived to be ­absent from the time limit vote, just as he abstained from the third reading of the same-sex marriage bill. (He says on Twitter that he would not vote to reduce time limits.)

Of course, being Christian and being a ­social liberal are not mutually exclusive: Tony Blair, whose government had a clear equalities agenda, was a convert to Catholicism. But the patchy voting records of Burnham and Farron suggest that, even if they agree to support the fightback, campaigners should not look to them to lead it.

Access to abortion is a cornerstone of women’s ability to control their lives. Will anyone put their head above the parapet? 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.