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The anti-abortion lobby is back on the warpath

With Tory MPs in favour of reducing time limits on terminations, feminist campaigners have a fight o

Anti-abortionists are feeling emboldened and they have adopted a new tactic. In both the United States and Britain, campaigning groups no longer implicitly state that they are against abortion, but claim instead that they are offering women "real choices". They are even beginning to adopt much of the rhetoric of pro-choice feminists. Groups in the UK, such as the Life League and Right to Life, are taking the anti-abortion message to even further extremes, aping American activists by picketing sexual health clinics and intimidating women out of having abortions.

Since 1967, when David Steel's private member's bill became the Abortion Act for England, Scotland and Wales, religious groups have made sustained efforts to restrict access to abortion and lower the time limit. In 1974, a private member's bill, put forward by the Labour MP James White and sponsored by an anti-choice organisation, threatened the act, but it was defeated after a campaign by pro-choice groups. The first real challenge, however, came in 1990 when a section of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act lowered the legal time limit for abortions from 28 weeks of pregnancy to 24.

In May 2008, MPs were again asked to vote on cutting the limit for the first time since 1990, resulting in calls for a reduction to between 12 and 22 weeks, but the overwhelming majority voted the proposals down. Today, abortion is allowed up to 24 weeks, although there is no time limit if there is a serious risk to the woman's life or severe foetal abnormalities.

Now, however, the presence of the Tory-led coalition government makes a lower time limit a palpable threat. A survey of Conservative candidates carried out before the 2010 general election found that 85 per cent favoured more restrictive abortion laws. Most Liberal Democrat MPs, on the other hand, support the current time limit. David Cameron, in an interview with the Catholic Herald last April - at the start of the election campaign - said he was in favour of an upper limit of between 20 and 22 weeks.

Life choices

The Tory MP Nadine Dorries is a well-known anti-abortionist. In 2006 she introduced a private member's bill in the Commons calling for the limit to be reduced from 24 to 21 weeks. She also proposed a mandatory ten-day "cooling-off" period for women wishing to have an abortion, during which they would be required to undergo counselling as a condition of consent. Then, in 2008, she tabled an amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill seeking to reduce the upper limit from 24 weeks to 20. It was defeated by 332 votes to 190.

“Please do not describe me as pro-life," Dorries says when we talk. "I am middle-ground, and hold the opinion about abortion that most people in this country agree with." There are, to date, no poll results that substantiate her claims about public attitudes. Her intention is to introduce "fully informed consent" for women seeking abortion, she says, rather than to campaign for a return to illegality. "There are 1,300 couples in this country wanting to adopt, but women are rarely told of that option. They feel railroaded into a cattle-market process and end up in clinic with 60 or so other women every day who are not treated with particular kindness."

What about women or children who have been raped? "Abortion is a double insult to rape victims," Dorries says. "They didn't want to be raped. They may have even had pro-life tendencies beforehand. I think these women should be treated separately from those on the regular conveyor belt in clinics which are full of women having social abortions."

One of the new wave of anti-abortionists is Robert Colquhoun, who leads the UK chapter of the religious, Texas-based 40 Days for Life,
a pressure group that has support and funding from hundreds of American churches and has been picketing outside clinics. He, too, uses the language of "choice" and "consent", and insists that 40 Days takes a "non-judgemental approach" to abortion. "Many women say they feel they were offered no choice but to have an abortion," he argues. "We provide support through prayer, and offer them counselling and love. We also educate people about the ignorance and apathy about abortion."

Like many in his movement, Colquhoun peddles some dangerous myths. In November, 40 Days picketed the Marie Stopes family planning office in central London and handed out leaflets claiming that abortion makes women more susceptible to breast cancer and that permitting rather than preventing abortion jeopardises human rights. "Abortion is the violation of the rights of a human being," he says. "Often it is an easy way out for men who do not wish to take responsibility. There are men who force women to have abortions. That is not about feminism."

It's my body

Feminists, however, do not want others to speak on their behalf, and are rising to the challenge. Cath Elliott, a 45-year-old freelance writer, is one of a growing number of women campaigning on the issue. "I believe that women must have the right to body autonomy and the right to control their own reproduction," she says. "Women's ability to determine when and if they have children is one of the most important factors in the fight for women's equality. Forced pregnancy is a form of violence."

Elliott, who has had an abortion, knows how difficult the system can be for women. "There is no such thing as abortion on demand in this country, no matter what the so-called pro-life brigade tell us. There are doctors who refuse to make known their own anti-abortion feelings, and who place obstacles in the way of women wanting to access abortion services."

Women in Catholic communities find abortion particularly difficult. Abortion Support Network, founded last year, helps women living in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, where abortion is in effect illegal, to get access to safe and legal services overseas. Women seek terminations for many reasons, such as being unable to afford to keep a child, or having been raped by an abusive partner, says the network's founder, Mara Clarke. "The pessimist in me says we can campaign for abortion rights as hard as we like but it is a long road ahead - and women need help now."
The Labour MP Emily Thornberry supports the pro-choice movement. What does she think should be done to ward off the danger to abortion time limits? "The Tories won't do it themselves but will support one of their members to do a ten-minute-rule bill, or a private member's bill, or even an amendment to a health bill or something. We need to remain vigilant and not let anything get past us."

Thornberry will be helped by the many grass-roots campaigners who are gathering to see off the threat. "We now have massive support from the National Union of Students, various feminist campaigns and loads of individuals," says Darinka Aleksic, of the UK pro-choice campaign Abortion Rights. "The attack on abortion is not going away soon - and neither are we."

Julie Bindel is a writer and feminist campaigner

Return to the Irish question

Ireland is one of the few countries in the EU that limits abortion to instances where the mother's life is at risk. As a result, every year, more than 4,000 women from Ireland come to the UK to have an abortion.

The Irish constitution explicitly limits abortion, guaranteeing "the right to life of the unborn . . . as far as practicable" - essentially until the mother's life is threatened.

The law, however, is murky. What constitutes a threat to the mother's life is a legal minefield. A doctor can face conviction if it turns out that the mother's life was not in danger. Yet there are no clear guidelines about what constitutes a threat to the woman's life - so, many doctors don't take the risk of sanctioning abortions.

Irish women are thus obliged to make the trip to the UK, sometimes even if their life is at risk.

This status quo has been challenged recently. In December, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of an Irish cancer patient who was refused an abortion. It described the current legal position as "chilling".

Despite this, the rule remains popular in Ireland. Polls consistently show support for the country's abortion law among Irish citizens, with about two-thirds in favour of it.

The trickle of desperate women from across the Irish Sea won't cease just yet.

Duncan Robinson

This article first appeared in the 17 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, War on WikiLeaks

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood