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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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.