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Think Donald Trump's comments are shocking? They're the law for some UK women

It’s easier to laugh at the backwardness of attitudes elsewhere than to face up to the brutality-by-omission happening on our own shores.

Sometimes, it feels like every day brings a new statement on abortion from someone whose opinion you really don’t want to hear. Actually, sometimes it feels like it’s the very people whose opinions you’d least like to hear who are most likely to vocalise them – or, at least, the men who you least like to think of in relation to your sex life.

That’s what I thought, anyway, when I saw that Republican presidential candidate and noted terrible opinion-haver Donald Trump was suggesting that abortion should be illegal, and women punished for seeking one.

Given the frequency of these sort of comments, it’s easy to start finding them more tedious than scary. Yet this one was unexpectedly terrifying. Although Trump had no answer when asked what the sanction should be, his casual phrasing – “there has to be some form of punishment” – spoke to something many feminists fear: that a significant proportion of men believe women ought to be sanctioned for seeking autonomy.

In Trump’s comments, there is an echo of the logic that drives Margaret Atwood’s dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale, in which women are kept like broodmares, reduced almost solely to their reproductive capacity. They are not individuals who have sovereignty over their own bodies, but subjects whose reproductive capacity belongs to society at large. They must be punished – like naughty children, but without the innocence – if they go against the wishes of the presiding dogma.

Feminists know the response script to this so well by now it seems almost superfluous to restate it: small-government rhetoric that defies logic to still believe in policing women’s bodies is contradictory and patronising; women will always have abortions, and it’s pointless to try to stop them; reproductive rights are the cornerstone of a progressive society. Yet the response to Trump also contained elements which, although broadly on “my” side, were disquieting, particularly from English campaigners: ones that mocked America, specifically, for being backwards.

When a UK citizen mocks America for its abortion rhetoric, it is, to put it mildly, a bit rich. For if what Trump said seems shocking, it’s not as bad as the reality that many women in the UK actually face; specifically those residing in Northern Ireland, where the 1967 Abortion Act – the piece of legislation which provides exemptions to the otherwise illegal act of obtaining an abortion – does not apply. It is this act that protects women in Scotland, England and Wales from prosecution if they seek a termination, essentially acting as a caveat to the earlier 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which makes abortion a criminal offence – and is still on the statute books.

If that sounds confusing, it is a confusion that works to the benefit of the pro-life lobby. Plenty of women are not aware that the 1967 Act doesn’t replace the previous law, and even fewer know that it doesn’t extend to Northern Ireland. In fact, if you were to stop English women in the street and take a straw poll, it’s likely a sizeable number wouldn’t be aware that there are parts of the UK where a woman is not able to get a safe, legal abortion. Yet official figures from 2013 suggest that around 800 Northern Irish women make the journey to England every year.

Often undertaking the journey covertly, these women are not only forced overseas to access what is in truth a relatively minor (and safe) healthcare procedure, but are made to pay to do so – because they, unlike other UK residents, are not eligible to have the procedure on the NHS.

Alternatively, they can remain in Northern Ireland and obtain an abortion illegally; either by importing the abortion pill, or by other methods. In January this year, a 21-year-old woman from County Down appeared in court after doing the former; charged under the 1861 Act, she could face a sentence up to life imprisonment.

This is scarier than Trump’s blitheness. Let me state it again: if you are reading this in the UK, it is your government allowing this to happen. It is under the law of your country that women are forced to risk their lives taking medication without the supervision of a doctor; are tried for 19th-century crimes in 2016; are forced to make difficult and costly journeys to access healthcare that ought to be available to them under the principle that guides the rest of the NHS: free at the point of service. 

These are women who have to place Ryanair flights they can’t really afford on credit cards because the state has decided to make their lives slightly more difficult, rather than rethink its own prejudices. Because it is easier to shepherd them out of the way – to make them go and have their abortions somewhere over there, so that those made uncomfortable by the biological reality of female bodies don’t have to face the sort of tough questions the women themselves must consider.

We are excellent at making women someone else’s problem. It's easy to see why: it is certainly less miserable to laugh at the backwardness of attitudes elsewhere (America; Ireland) than it is to face up to the brutality-by-omission happening on our own shores. But statistically, you know a woman who has had an abortion (although, statistically, those lawmakers do too). 

I am always wary of the idea one need imagine misogyny hurting a mother, sister or daughter in order to acknowledge it as a problem, but I’m also practical, and if that is what it takes to conjure up the appropriate empathy, so be it. Because that is, ultimately, the question: if you couldn't forget that one in three of the women you know might undergo this, what would you want the law to be?

The FPA has guidance on how you can help campaign for abortion rights in Northern Ireland. Additionally, Abortion Support Network accept donations to help fund women from the island of Ireland to access abortions overseas

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.