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27 October 2017

50 years after abortion became legal we remain stuck in the past on reproductive rights

If you’d asked me about this 30 years ago, I’d have said we just needed to wait it out.

By glosswitch Glosswitch

Do you ever find yourself looking back on how you thought the future would be, amazed at how wrong you could get it? These days I’m doing this more and more. If you’d told 12-year-old me what life would be like in 2017, I’d never have believed you.

Technology has progressed beyond my wildest dreams. Who’d have thought we’d now be developing artificial wombs, rapeable sexbots and robot-staffed blow job cafes? Not me, that’s for sure. Instead I had this crazy idea that by the time I hit my forties, flesh-and-blood women would be treated like fully autonomous human beings. If only I’d stuck to flying skateboards, I’d have saved myself so much disappointment.

Today marks 50 years since the passing of the 1967 Abortion Act. This made abortion legal in England, Scotland and Wales, albeit only if two doctors were willing to confirm that continuing with a pregnancy would have a detrimental effect on a woman’s health or that of her family.

Back then, just not wanting to be pregnant was considered insufficient grounds for requesting a termination. Despite the fact that all pregnancies involve a level of sacrifice unheard of in other circumstances – that, to quote Sarah Ditum, “we see blood and organ donation as opt-in, but the donation of the whole bodily system entailed by pregnancy as opt-out” – people in the Sixties just weren’t ready to let women decide for themselves.

Before we rush to judgment, it’s important to see things in context. In 1967 it was still legal for a husband to rape his wife; there was no such thing as the Equal Pay Act; and women were not able to apply for loans or credit in their own names. Is it any wonder, then, that the Abortion Act, while certainly an improvement, still failed to treat women as complete human beings, fully entitled to make their own choices about their own bodies and lives? That’s just the way things were.

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Fast-forward to 2017 and things are completely different. Except they’re not. Many things have improved for women, but abortion law remains stuck in the past. In some ways, it’s baffling. Why, when a woman’s right to physical boundaries is recognised in other contexts, is the forced continuation of a pregnancy not considered an outrage? Fifty years after the passing of the Abortion Act, why haven’t we progressed to full decriminalisation?

If you’d asked me this 30 years ago, I’d have said we just needed to wait it out. In my child’s take on feminism, older people were sexist because they didn’t know any better.

For some inexplicable reason, no woman born before the 1950s had ever bothered to point out that female people were human, too (or if she had done, she’d done it badly, ensuring no self-respecting man would listen). Thankfully, “proper” feminism had finally happened, this misunderstanding was being resolved and abortion law reform would follow hot on the heels of other examples of progress. Yet instead we’ve spent the past few decades on the defensive.

In the US, recent attacks on abortion access have led to spate of articles asking why gay rights appear to have weathered the backlash better than reproductive ones. An obvious answer might be that some forms of liberation demand more than others. Just because “people like us” seem to be winning on one front doesn’t mean we can expect the rest to follow.

But it’s also the case that being sexist has long been treated as synonymous with being old-fashioned. We tell ourselves misogyny is an old man’s game and that eventually old men die out. Alas, this isn’t strictly true. A recent Fawcett Society survey suggests younger men are as hostile to feminism as their older counterparts. And even for those of a more liberal bent, is there any real need to put women first? It’s perfectly possible to hold superficially enlightened views about gender while still demanding the spoils of sex-based oppression.

In the age of IVF and DNA testing, it may be that confirming paternity by restricting sexual choice – through, for example, compulsory heterosexuality, enforced monogamy or marriage – is less of a concern than once before. If so, that’s great. But appropriating female reproductive labour – ensuring not only that one class of people does the work of reproduction, but that this work is invisibilised – is as much of an issue as ever.

The Abortion Act 50 years on is a reminder than there is no magic “right side of history” on which one can stand, waiting for change to just happen. Transforming how patriarchy looks and feels isn’t the same as ending it.

I’m guilty of complacency regarding reproductive justice. I thought, along with teleportation, holidays on Mars and world peace, it would just happen. 

The 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act should be a cause for celebration. We should respect the achievements of the past. Nonetheless, we ought to have progressed further. Let’s also make this a call to arms. 

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