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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.