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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

Picture: Archives Charmet / Bridgeman Images
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What Marx got right

...and what he got wrong.

1. You’re probably a capitalist – among other things

Are you a capitalist? The first question to ask is: do you own shares? Even if you don’t own any directly (about half of Americans do but the proportion is far lower in most other countries) you may have a pension that is at least partly invested in the stock market; or you’ll have savings in a bank.

So you have some financial wealth: that is, you own capital. Equally, you are probably also a worker, or are dependent directly or indirectly on a worker’s salary; and you’re a consumer. Unless you live in an autonomous, self-sufficient commune – very unusual – you are likely to be a full participant in the capitalist system.

We interact with capitalism in multiple ways, by no means all economic. And this accounts for the conflicted relationship that most of us (including me) have with capitalism. Typically, we neither love it nor hate it, but we definitely live it.

2. Property rights are fundamental to capitalism . . . but they are not absolute

If owning something means having the right to do what you want with it, property rights are rarely unconstrained. I am free to buy any car I want – so long as it meets European pollution standards and is legally insured; and I can drive it anywhere I want, at least on public roads, as long as I have a driver’s licence and keep to the speed limit. If I no longer want the car, I can’t just dump it: I have to dispose of it in an approved manner. It’s mine, not yours or the state’s, and the state will protect my rights over it. But – generally for good reason – how I can use it is quite tightly constrained.

This web of rules and constraints, which both defines and restricts property rights, is characteristic of a complex economy and society. Most capitalist societies attempt to resolve these tensions in part by imposing restrictions, constitutional or political, on arbitrary or confiscatory actions by governments that “interfere” with property rights. But the idea that property rights are absolute is not philosophically or practically coherent in a modern society.

3. What Marx got right about capitalism

Marx had two fundamental insights. The first was the importance of economic forces in shaping human society. For Marx, it was the “mode of production” – how labour and capital were combined, and under what rules – that explained more or less everything about society, from politics to culture. So, as modes of production change, so too does society. And he correctly concluded that industrialisation and capitalism would lead to profound changes in the nature of society, affecting everything from the political system to morality.

The second insight was the dynamic nature of capitalism in its own right. Marx understood that capitalism could not be static: given the pursuit of profit in a competitive economy, there would be constant pressure to increase the capital stock and improve productivity. This in turn would lead to labour-saving, or capital-intensive, technological change.

Putting these two insights together gives a picture of capitalism as a radical force. Such are its own internal dynamics that the economy is constantly evolving, and this in turn results in changes in the wider society.

4. And what he got wrong . . .

Though Marx was correct that competition would lead the owners of capital to invest in productivity-enhancing and labour-saving machinery, he was wrong that this would lead to wages being driven down to subsistence level, as had largely been the case under feudalism. Classical economics, which argued that new, higher-productivity jobs would emerge, and that workers would see their wages rise more or less in line with productivity, got this one right. And so, in turn, Marx’s most important prediction – that an inevitable conflict between workers and capitalists would lead ultimately to the victory of the former and the end of capitalism – was wrong.

Marx was right that as the number of industrial workers rose, they would demand their share of the wealth; and that, in contrast to the situation under feudalism, their number and geographical concentration in factories and cities would make it impossible to deny these demands indefinitely. But thanks to increased productivity, workers’ demands in most advanced capitalist economies could be satisfied without the system collapsing. So far, it seems that increased productivity, increased wages and increased consumption go hand in hand, not only in individual countries but worldwide.

5. All societies are unequal. But some are more unequal than others

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an increasing proportion of an economy’s output was captured by a small class of capitalists who owned and controlled the means of production. Not only did this trend stop in the 20th century, it was sharply reversed. Inherited fortunes, often dating back to the pre-industrial era, were eroded by taxes and inflation, and some were destroyed by the Great Depression. Most of all, after the Second World War the welfare state redistributed income and wealth within the framework of a capitalist economy.

Inequality rose again after the mid-1970s. Under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the welfare state was cut back. Tax and social security systems became less progressive. Deregulation, the decline of heavy industry and reduction of trade union power increased the wage differential between workers. Globally the chief story of the past quarter-century has been the rise of the “middle class”: people in emerging economies who have incomes of up to $5,000 a year. But at the same time lower-income groups in richer countries have done badly.

Should we now worry about inequality within countries, or within the world as a whole? And how much does an increasing concentration of income and wealth among a small number of people – and the consequent distortions of the political system – matter when set against the rapid ­income growth for large numbers of people in the emerging economies?

Growing inequality is not an inevitable consequence of capitalism. But, unchecked, it could do severe economic damage. The question is whether our political systems, national and global, are up to the challenge.

6. China’s road to capitalism is unique

The day after Margaret Thatcher died, I said on Radio 4’s Today programme: “In 1979, a quarter of a century ago, a politician came to power with a radical agenda of market-oriented reform; a plan to reduce state control and release the country’s pent-up economic dynamism. That changed the world, and we’re still feeling the impact. His name, of course, was Deng Xiaoping.”

The transition from state to market in China kick-started the move towards truly globalised capitalism. But the Chinese road to capitalism has been unique. First agriculture was liberalised, then entrepreneurs were allowed to set up small businesses, while at the same time state-owned enterprises reduced their workforces; yet there has been no free-for-all, either for labour or for capital. The movement of workers from rural to urban areas, and from large, unproductive, state-owned enterprises to more productive private businesses, though vast, has been controlled. Access to capital still remains largely under state control. Moreover, though its programme is not exactly “Keynesian”, China has used all the tools of macroeconomic management to keep growth high and relatively stable.

That means China is still far from a “normal” capitalist economy. The two main engines of growth have been investment and the movement of labour from the countryside to the cities. This in itself was enough, because China had so much catching-up to do. However, if the Chinese are to close the huge gap between themselves and the advanced economies, more growth will need to come from innovation and technological progress. No one doubts that China has the human resources to deliver this, but its system will have to change.

7. How much is enough?

The human instinct to improve our material position is deeply rooted: control over resources, especially food and shelter, made early human beings more able to reproduce. That is intrinsic to capitalism; the desire to acquire income and wealth motivates individuals to work, save, invent and invest. As Adam Smith showed, this benefits us all. But if we can produce more than enough for everybody, what will motivate people? Growth would stop. Not that this would necessarily be a bad thing: yet our economy and society would be very different.

Although we are at least twice as rich as we were half a century ago, the urge to consume more seems no less strong. Relative incomes matter. We compare ourselves not to our impoverished ancestors but to other people in similar situations: we strive to “keep up with the Joneses”. The Daily Telegraph once described a London couple earning £190,000 per year (in the top 0.1 per cent of world income) as follows: “The pair are worried about becoming financially broken as the sheer cost of middle-class life in London means they are stretched to the brink.” Talk about First World problems.

Is there any limit? Those who don’t like the excesses of consumerism might hope that as our material needs are satisfied, we will worry less about keeping up with the Joneses and more about our satisfaction and enjoyment of non-material things. It is equally possible, of course, that we’ll just spend more time keeping up with the Kardashians instead . . .

8. No more boom and bust

Are financial crises and their economic consequences part of the natural (capitalist) order of things? Politicians and economists prefer to think otherwise. No longer does anyone believe that “light-touch” regulation of the banking sector is enough. New rules have been introduced, designed to restrict leverage and ensure that failure in one or two financial institutions does not lead to systemic failure. Many would prefer a more wholesale approach to reining in the financial system; this would have gained the approval of Keynes, who thought that while finance was necessary, its role in capitalism should be strictly limited.

But maybe there is a more fundamental problem: that recurrent crises are baked into the system. The “financial instability” hypothesis says that the more governments and regulators stabilise the system, the more this will breed overconfidence, leading to more debt and higher leverage. And sooner or later the music stops. If that is the case, then financial capitalism plus human nature equals inevitable financial crises; and we should make sure that we have better contingency plans next time round.

9. Will robots take our jobs?

With increasing mechanisation (from factories to supermarket checkouts) and computerisation (from call centres to tax returns), is it becoming difficult for human beings to make or produce anything at less cost than a machine can?

Not yet – more Britons have jobs than at any other point in history. That we can produce more food and manufactured products with fewer people means that we are richer overall, leaving us to do other things, from economic research to performance art to professional football.

However, the big worry is that automation could shift the balance of power between capital and labour in favour of the former. Workers would still work; but many or most would be in relatively low-value, peripheral jobs, not central to the functioning of the economy and not particularly well paid. Either the distribution of income and wealth would widen further, or society would rely more on welfare payments and charity to reduce unacceptable disparities between the top and the bottom.

That is a dismal prospect. Yet these broader economic forces pushing against the interests of workers will not, on their own, determine the course of history. The Luddites were doomed to fail; but their successors – trade unionists who sought to improve working conditions and Chartists who demanded the vote so that they could restructure the economy and the state – mostly succeeded. The test will be whether our political and social institutions are up to the challenge.

10. What’s the alternative?

There is no viable economic alternative to capitalism at the moment but that does not mean one won’t emerge. It is economics that determines the nature of our society, and we are at the beginning of a profound set of economic changes, based on three critical developments.

Physical human input into production will become increasingly rare as robots take over. Thanks to advances in computing power and artificial intelligence, much of the analytic work that we now do in the workplace will be carried out by machines. And an increasing ability to manipulate our own genes will extend our lifespan and allow us to determine our offspring’s characteristics.

Control over “software” – information, data, and how it is stored, processed and manipulated – will be more important than control over physical capital, buildings and machines. The defining characteristic of the economy and society will be how that software is produced, owned and commanded: by the state, by individuals, by corporations, or in some way as yet undefined.

These developments will allow us, if we choose, to end poverty and expand our horizons, both materially and intellectually. But they could also lead to growing inequality, with the levers of the new economy controlled by a corporate and moneyed elite. As an optimist, I hope for the former. Yet just as it wasn’t the “free market” or individual capitalists who freed the slaves, gave votes to women and created the welfare state, it will be the collective efforts of us all that will enable humanity to turn economic advances into social progress. 

Jonathan Portes's most recent book is “50 Ideas You Really Need to Know: Capitalism” (Quercus)

Jonathan Portes is senior fellow The UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of Economics and Public Policy, King’s College London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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