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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

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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