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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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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