Abortion should be available on demand, without restrictions, for everyone who needs it. Image: YouTube
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Laurie Penny on abortion: it should be free, safe and legal – for everyone

Nobody should have to play the frightened victim to make basic choices about her future.

What does a good abortion look like? A few months ago, Emily Letts, a 25-year-old American clinic worker, filmed her surgical abortion and posted the video on the internet. In the clip, Letts smiles and hums throughout the procedure, which she chose to have simply because she did not want to bear a child. “I feel good,” she remarks when it’s over, shattering generations of anxiety and fear-mongering around reproductive choice with three simple words.

The idea that abortion might be a positive choice is still taboo. For some, the only way it can be countenanced is if the pregnancy is  an immediate threat to life or the result of rape – meaning that the woman involved didn’t want to have sex and as such does not deserve to be punished for the crime of acting on desire as a female. Even then, the person having the abortion is expected to be sorry for ever, to weep and agonise over the decision. In Britain, the Abortion Act 1967 obliges anyone seeking a termination to justify why continuing with a pregnancy poses a threat to her health and well-being or that of her existing offspring. “Because I don’t want to be pregnant” simply isn’t enough.

Hence the furore over the glamour model Josie Cunningham’s recent announcement, through the eyebrow-raising medium of the British tabloid press, that she is planning to terminate her pregnancy in order to have a shot at appearing on reality television. The national and international gossip media scrambled to excoriate Cunningham: this was the epitome of selfishness, a woman who would boast of having an abortion to further her career. We live in a society that fetishises “choice” while denying half the population the most fundamental choice of all – the choice over the autonomy of one’s body.

Women in Northern Ireland, where the Abortion Act 1967 does not apply, have just learned that – despite paying towards the NHS through their taxes – they will continue to be denied an abortion unless they can travel to England and fund it themselves. As a result of a high court ruling, hundreds of women each year will still find themselves having to take cheap red-eye flights to Heathrow and Manchester, scared and alone, to have procedures they may have gone into debt to afford.

In Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the world, the prospect of women having full control over their reproductive potential – the notion that we might be able to decide, without shame or censure, whether and when and if we have children or not – provokes fear among the powerful. When abortion is discussed in public, it is almost always in terms of individual morality or, more usually, of moral lapses on the part of whatever selfish, slutty women are demanding basic human rights this week. It is rarely discussed in terms of structural and economic inequality. Yet reproductive inequality remains the material basis for women’s second-class status in society. It affects every aspect of our future.

Consider, as an example, the controversy over the rise of “social surrogacies” – rich women paying poor women to go through pregnancy and childbirth on their behalf. The horrified response to this idea belies how men do the same thing: arrange for women to bear, carry and, indeed, raise children on their behalf so that they can get on with their careers uninterrupted. That’s the material basis of gender inequality and it must be discussed honestly as a matter of structural injustice, not individual morality.

Abortion, motherhood and reproductive health care remain fraught issues, as women’s demand for basic control over our bodies and destinies pulls ever further away from official public policy. In countries such as Ireland, Spain and the US, women’s bodies remain the territory on which the patriarchal right wing fights its battle for moral dominance.

Abortion can be a difficult, painful decision – if, for example, you would quite like to have a baby but are in no position to support one because “single mother” is still a synonym for “poor and shunned” and pregnancy discrimination is rampant in this treacherous post-crash job market. But abortion can also be a simple decision. It does not have to involve years of regret or, as Emily Letts bravely demonstrated, any regret at all.

So here, in case it wasn’t clear, is my position. Abortion should be available on demand, without restrictions, for everyone who needs it. I believe that while society still places limits on what a woman may or may not do with her own body, while women’s sexuality and reproduction are still in effect controlled by the state, any discussion of equality or empowerment is a joke. Nobody should have to play the frightened victim to make basic choices about her future. It should be enough to turn up at a clinic and say, “I don’t want this,” or, “I’ve changed my mind.”

And there’s more. If there were real choice, real equality, pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood would not come with enormous socio-economic penalties for all but the richest women. Society should provide support for all parents, single and partnered, in and out of work, rather than forcing them to live on a pittance, under constant threat of eviction, and shaming them as “scroungers”.

That’s what real choice would look like. And the thing about giving people choices is that inevitably a few of them will make poor choices, choices we might not approve of. Many people have religious or personal reasons for disapproving of abortion and they are free, as they always have been, not to have one themselves. Yet it’s time to change the terms of the debate. It’s time to demand reproductive rights for everyone – without apology. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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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.