Supporters of employer-funded contraception rally in front of the Supreme Court. Photo: Getty
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The knitting needle age: this US verdict shows our abortion rights are always under threat

If you are a woman of my generation, you were born into an era of extraordinary good fortune, where you have the right to decide what happens to your body. But we mistook a truce in the war on women for a victory.

You don’t see it so much on pro-choice placards. It doesn’t have the recognisable profile of the coat hanger, but it’s the knitting needle’s shape that made it useful to women desperate to end their pregnancies. A simple household object, easily available when women’s work routinely included the creation of sweaters and socks for the family, pulling loop over loop; a fine metal spear with a pointed end that could be inserted into the uterus, in the hope of destroying the unwanted foetus and inducing miscarriage.

Not that useful, of course. Few women had the skilled knowledge of their anatomy that would let them navigate their internal organs successfully. The result might be nothing, or it might be worse: a self-inflicted puncture wound, infection, bleeding, death. Before abortion and contraception were made legally and widely available, physicians reported women being brought into hospital with knitting needles or similar objects trapped in their wombs. This was something normal, the bleak and gory price of a society that gave women no safe recourse when dealing with a pregnancy they could not continue.

Fitting, then, that the most recent assault on American women’s right to decide whether or not they get pregnant comes from one of that country’s largest purveyors of knitting needles. On Monday, craft store chain Hobby Lobby won a Supreme Court decision protecting it from paying for insurance for employees under the Affordable Care Act that covers certain forms of contraception which the company considered to be “abortifacients”, including the Mirena coil. This requirement, according to the judgement, would impose a “substantial burden” on the “religious freedom” of the company.

The fact that these contraceptives, by definition, prevent rather than end a pregnancy was apparently unimportant to the five judges who supported the majority verdict (all three female justices dissented, as did one of their male colleagues). Similarly, there was little effort to address what it means for a company to have “religious freedom” – maybe the Hobby Lobby stores really are all engaged in constant silent observance of the Holy Spirit, although it’s hard to tell, what with them being inanimate brick shells.

And what about the other burden here, on women who find their reproductive options shaped, not by their own wishes and needs and their doctor’s advice, but by their employers’ scruples? The judgement seems far more concerned by how heavy a Mirena might weigh on an employer’s conscience, than by the weight of living flesh on a woman’s body as an unwanted foetus multiplies cell by cell, becomes an embryo, a baby, a child, all the time unwanted, all the time living on the woman who didn’t want to be a mother.

The idea that women have a right to be something other than a resource for other life to consume is something I’ve been able to grow up taking for granted, but in truth it’s a phenomenal novelty. The 1967 Abortion Act in the UK, Roe vs Wade in the USA in 1973 – these and the other watersheds like them are all firmly within living memory. In Spain, abortion was wholly criminalised until 1985, and now the governing People’s Party is on the verge of outlawing abortion in all cases other than rape or medically certified risk to the life of the pregnant woman. Similar efforts to amend UK law have had little effect so far, but make no mistake: if you are a woman of my generation, you were born into an era of extraordinary good fortune. We mistook a truce on our bodies for a victory.

While we enjoyed the luxury of choice, the forces against women were finding new ways to attack. Advice aimed at giving women trying for a baby the best chance of a healthy child has been turned into injunctions that treat all fertile women as “pre-pregnant”, valuing the potential life that could inhabit her over the woman’s own life and decisions – whether she wants to be pregnant or not. The right of women to seek the medical treatment they need, and to do so in private, has been placed at odds with the freedom of speech of those who picket clinics. Niggling disputes about the exact point at which a foetus becomes “viable” have consumed our attention, and barely anyone thinks to mention that the woman herself is not merely “viable” but living, conscious and competent to decide her own best interests.

Anti-abortion protesters think that the world needs to have its face rubbed in the unpleasant truth of what abortion is. As if women seeking abortions didn’t know that a baby is, precisely, the thing they don’t want; as if we didn’t know that abortion, induced or otherwise, is a mess. These are not the things we need to be reminded of. What we have forgotten is what the world looks like outside our blissful bubble of choice. It looks like unmarried mothers imprisoned, and their babies left to die and given no resting place. It looks like being sexually assaulted and ripped off by the backstreet quacks you’re driven to. It looks like poverty and pain. It looks like a knitting needle stabbed into a cervix. Perhaps it is too hard to believe that such a world existed: but all we need to do is let things continue as they are, and we will see it again soon.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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