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 Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.