Anti-abortionists are feeling emboldened and they have adopted a new tactic. In both the United States and Britain, campaigning groups no longer implicitly state that they are against abortion, but claim instead that they are offering women "real choices". They are even beginning to adopt much of the rhetoric of pro-choice feminists. Groups in the UK, such as the Life League and Right to Life, are taking the anti-abortion message to even further extremes, aping American activists by picketing sexual health clinics and intimidating women out of having abortions.
Since 1967, when David Steel's private member's bill became the Abortion Act for England, Scotland and Wales, religious groups have made sustained efforts to restrict access to abortion and lower the time limit. In 1974, a private member's bill, put forward by the Labour MP James White and sponsored by an anti-choice organisation, threatened the act, but it was defeated after a campaign by pro-choice groups. The first real challenge, however, came in 1990 when a section of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act lowered the legal time limit for abortions from 28 weeks of pregnancy to 24.
In May 2008, MPs were again asked to vote on cutting the limit for the first time since 1990, resulting in calls for a reduction to between 12 and 22 weeks, but the overwhelming majority voted the proposals down. Today, abortion is allowed up to 24 weeks, although there is no time limit if there is a serious risk to the woman's life or severe foetal abnormalities.
Now, however, the presence of the Tory-led coalition government makes a lower time limit a palpable threat. A survey of Conservative candidates carried out before the 2010 general election found that 85 per cent favoured more restrictive abortion laws. Most Liberal Democrat MPs, on the other hand, support the current time limit. David Cameron, in an interview with the Catholic Herald last April - at the start of the election campaign - said he was in favour of an upper limit of between 20 and 22 weeks.
The Tory MP Nadine Dorries is a well-known anti-abortionist. In 2006 she introduced a private member's bill in the Commons calling for the limit to be reduced from 24 to 21 weeks. She also proposed a mandatory ten-day "cooling-off" period for women wishing to have an abortion, during which they would be required to undergo counselling as a condition of consent. Then, in 2008, she tabled an amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill seeking to reduce the upper limit from 24 weeks to 20. It was defeated by 332 votes to 190.
“Please do not describe me as pro-life," Dorries says when we talk. "I am middle-ground, and hold the opinion about abortion that most people in this country agree with." There are, to date, no poll results that substantiate her claims about public attitudes. Her intention is to introduce "fully informed consent" for women seeking abortion, she says, rather than to campaign for a return to illegality. "There are 1,300 couples in this country wanting to adopt, but women are rarely told of that option. They feel railroaded into a cattle-market process and end up in clinic with 60 or so other women every day who are not treated with particular kindness."
What about women or children who have been raped? "Abortion is a double insult to rape victims," Dorries says. "They didn't want to be raped. They may have even had pro-life tendencies beforehand. I think these women should be treated separately from those on the regular conveyor belt in clinics which are full of women having social abortions."
One of the new wave of anti-abortionists is Robert Colquhoun, who leads the UK chapter of the religious, Texas-based 40 Days for Life,
a pressure group that has support and funding from hundreds of American churches and has been picketing outside clinics. He, too, uses the language of "choice" and "consent", and insists that 40 Days takes a "non-judgemental approach" to abortion. "Many women say they feel they were offered no choice but to have an abortion," he argues. "We provide support through prayer, and offer them counselling and love. We also educate people about the ignorance and apathy about abortion."
Like many in his movement, Colquhoun peddles some dangerous myths. In November, 40 Days picketed the Marie Stopes family planning office in central London and handed out leaflets claiming that abortion makes women more susceptible to breast cancer and that permitting rather than preventing abortion jeopardises human rights. "Abortion is the violation of the rights of a human being," he says. "Often it is an easy way out for men who do not wish to take responsibility. There are men who force women to have abortions. That is not about feminism."
It's my body
Feminists, however, do not want others to speak on their behalf, and are rising to the challenge. Cath Elliott, a 45-year-old freelance writer, is one of a growing number of women campaigning on the issue. "I believe that women must have the right to body autonomy and the right to control their own reproduction," she says. "Women's ability to determine when and if they have children is one of the most important factors in the fight for women's equality. Forced pregnancy is a form of violence."
Elliott, who has had an abortion, knows how difficult the system can be for women. "There is no such thing as abortion on demand in this country, no matter what the so-called pro-life brigade tell us. There are doctors who refuse to make known their own anti-abortion feelings, and who place obstacles in the way of women wanting to access abortion services."
Women in Catholic communities find abortion particularly difficult. Abortion Support Network, founded last year, helps women living in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, where abortion is in effect illegal, to get access to safe and legal services overseas. Women seek terminations for many reasons, such as being unable to afford to keep a child, or having been raped by an abusive partner, says the network's founder, Mara Clarke. "The pessimist in me says we can campaign for abortion rights as hard as we like but it is a long road ahead - and women need help now."
The Labour MP Emily Thornberry supports the pro-choice movement. What does she think should be done to ward off the danger to abortion time limits? "The Tories won't do it themselves but will support one of their members to do a ten-minute-rule bill, or a private member's bill, or even an amendment to a health bill or something. We need to remain vigilant and not let anything get past us."
Thornberry will be helped by the many grass-roots campaigners who are gathering to see off the threat. "We now have massive support from the National Union of Students, various feminist campaigns and loads of individuals," says Darinka Aleksic, of the UK pro-choice campaign Abortion Rights. "The attack on abortion is not going away soon - and neither are we."
Julie Bindel is a writer and feminist campaigner
Return to the Irish question
Ireland is one of the few countries in the EU that limits abortion to instances where the mother's life is at risk. As a result, every year, more than 4,000 women from Ireland come to the UK to have an abortion.
The Irish constitution explicitly limits abortion, guaranteeing "the right to life of the unborn . . . as far as practicable" - essentially until the mother's life is threatened.
The law, however, is murky. What constitutes a threat to the mother's life is a legal minefield. A doctor can face conviction if it turns out that the mother's life was not in danger. Yet there are no clear guidelines about what constitutes a threat to the woman's life - so, many doctors don't take the risk of sanctioning abortions.
Irish women are thus obliged to make the trip to the UK, sometimes even if their life is at risk.
This status quo has been challenged recently. In December, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of an Irish cancer patient who was refused an abortion. It described the current legal position as "chilling".
Despite this, the rule remains popular in Ireland. Polls consistently show support for the country's abortion law among Irish citizens, with about two-thirds in favour of it.
The trickle of desperate women from across the Irish Sea won't cease just yet.