If there is ever a Channel 5 clip show called Britain’s Best Progressive Years, 1967 would walk it. It was the year that the Abortion Act was passed and we decriminalised homosexuality. Ever since, there has been a tendency to assume that they follow parallel trajectories. But is that really the case?
This April, Katha Pollitt argued in the Nation that, in America, “reproductive rights [are] losing while gay rights are winning”. While Indiana failed to enshrine opposition to gay marriage in law, legislation is “forcing abortion clinics to close; and absurd, even medically dangerous restrictions are heaping up in state after state”. A similar situation has played out in Ireland, which legalised gay marriage in a referendum on 22 May, while abortion is still illegal unless the woman’s life is at risk.
You can already see the same dynamic here: Northern Ireland has never accepted the Abortion Act 1967 but it recognises civil partnerships (although not full gay marriage). Who will take a bet that it will institute marriage equality before it liberalises its abortion laws? Politically, giving legal recognition to monogamous love is a far easier sell than offsetting the negative consequences of sex. (No one gets an abortion cake.) Meanwhile, the status quo causes misery: at the time of writing, a Northern Irish mother in her thirties is awaiting trial for procuring “poison” – the drug mifepristone – for her pregnant daughter online.
And let’s not be complacent about access to abortion in England and Wales. Although the 1967 act is unlikely to face a frontal assault, a small group of MPs is chipping away at its foundations. In 2011 Nadine Dorries attempted to stop independent abortion providers from also giving NHS-funded counselling; this year Fiona Bruce, the MP for Congleton, introduced an amendment to the Serious Crime Bill to criminalise sex-selective abortion. It was sold as a “clarification” of the existing law but its real purpose appeared to be smuggling a reference to the “unborn child” on to the statute book, something campaigners see as a first step towards giving the foetus “personhood”, a legal status of its own. It was Ireland’s personhood laws that caused the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012 after she sought hospital treatment for a miscarriage at 17 weeks caused by a bacterial infection. In order to try to save the foetus, doctors refused to give her an abortion. She died of septic shock.
Any attempt to enshrine a foetus’s legal rights in law inevitably involves reducing the woman’s rights. Once that happens, all her behaviour during pregnancy is potentially criminal – do we prosecute her for taking drugs, or drinking too much, for riding a horse or eating rare steak, if any of those actions leads to the loss of the foetus?
For me, the best way to reduce abortions is to address the reasons a woman might need one. We need better access to contraception, better sex education, and help for those who are in abusive relationships or trying to escape controlling families.
Official population data shows no evidence that sex-selective abortion is happening here in Britain, even in minority communities. So we should see interventions such as Fiona Bruce’s for what they are: an attempt to undermine the 1967 act under the guise of protecting the vulnerable. Since the election, Bruce has already asked seven written parliamentary questions on abortion. As well as hammering away at sex selection, she is challenging the provision of abortion on the grounds of disability.
As a result, campaigners think the time has come to shift from rebuttals and rearguard action to arguing for liberalising the law further, and lobbying for measures such as buffer zones around abortion clinics to stop women being shouted at or filmed on their way in. As Katherine O’Brien of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service tells me: “We spent a lot of the last parliament trying to defend the status quo. But we don’t think the status quo works for women.”
Yet despite the latest British Social Attitudes survey finding that two-thirds of us support abortion if a woman “does not wish to have the child” – in effect, abortion on demand – parliament is unlikely to be receptive. Because of what O’Brien calls a “noisy minority”, and because evangelical Christians have seized on the issue, “being pro-choice is seen by some MPs as dangerous – it’s putting your head over the parapet”.
Most members of the cabinet support a lower time limit on terminations: when the issue was last debated in 2008, only George Osborne and Theresa Villiers supported the current 24 weeks. David Cameron, Theresa May and Iain Duncan Smith voted for a 20-week limit, while Jeremy Hunt, now Health Secretary, wanted just 12 weeks.
Still, you might think, at least we can rely on Labour and the Liberal Democrats. But the front-runners in both leadership races are committed Christians with often socially conservative voting records. Andy Burnham opposed IVF for lesbians where the child would not have a “father figure”, for instance. (He did, however, vote against lowering abortion term limits in 2008.) The Lib Dems’ Tim Farron contrived to be absent from the time limit vote, just as he abstained from the third reading of the same-sex marriage bill. (He says on Twitter that he would not vote to reduce time limits.)
Of course, being Christian and being a social liberal are not mutually exclusive: Tony Blair, whose government had a clear equalities agenda, was a convert to Catholicism. But the patchy voting records of Burnham and Farron suggest that, even if they agree to support the fightback, campaigners should not look to them to lead it.
Access to abortion is a cornerstone of women’s ability to control their lives. Will anyone put their head above the parapet?