When Theresa May announced in her January reshuffle that Maria Caulfield was to be Conservative Vice Chair for Women, pro-choice activists shivered. Would the appointment of an anti-choice MP to this role lead to a hardening line on abortion?
Last week, our concerns were realised. Caulfield announced she would like a debate on reducing the abortion upper time limit which currently stands at 24 weeks. She argued a debate was needed on bringing the time limit down — erroneously claiming the UK has some of the most liberal abortion laws in Europe. In fact, abortion is not decriminalised in Great Britain and a woman needs the signatures of two doctors stating the pregnancy risks her health if it continues.
Caulfield’s call for a parliamentary debate is part of a worrying trend within the Conservative Party. Its MPs have form in proposing laws and debates that chip away at abortion provision within Great Britain. No one is seriously worried that we are facing a ban on abortion in this country — Caulfied isn’t Mike Pence declaring abortion will “end in our time”. But should they succeed in restricting women’s access to abortion, then we could see the Tories coming for the right to choose — and we might not realise it’s gone until it’s too late.
This isn’t the first time an anti-choice Conservative MP has called to restrict the upper time limit. In 2008, backbench MP Nadine Dorries proposed a law that would ban abortion after 20 weeks. The majority of the Conservative shadow cabinet voted in favour of reducing the time period — including now Prime Minister Theresa May. She was joined by Jeremy Hunt, Chris Grayling, Liam Fox and Philip Hammond and many more.
Why does this matter? Because 10 years on from this defeated attempt, many on the 2008 opposition frontbench are in power. A second effort to reduce the upper time limit could succeed where it’s failed before.
Dorries raised the issue again in 2011 when she attempted to ban abortion providers from offering counselling to pregnant women. Her proposal would have meant anti-choice organisations could continue to support women, while pro-choice charities such as BPAS could not. She was supported by MPs including Iain Duncan Smith and Fox.
In 2015, there was another attempt to limit access when Conservative MP Fiona Bruce proposed a ban on sex-selective abortion. Although there are genuine pressures on some women to have boys, the Department of Health guidelines already state abortions should not be performed solely on the basis of gender. Her move was overwhelmingly supported in the House of Commons, although it did not lead to a change in the law.
The issue of sex-selective abortions is an emotive one. However, why not tackle the socio-economic factors that lead to women feeling pressured to abort female foetuses in the first place, rather than criminalise potentially vulnerable and coerced women?
In March 2017, the government announced that anti-choice charity Life would be one of the beneficiaries of money raised from the controversial tampon tax. A significant grant was handed to an organisation that tells vulnerable women abortion is wrong.
Three months later, afterthe Tories lost their parliamentary majority, Theresa May agreed a confidence and supply deal with the anti-choice Democratic Unionist Party. Partnering with the DUP means little progress will be made in liberalising Northern Ireland’s anti-abortion laws — while threatening abortion access in the rest of the UK. Indeed, former Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson suggested in June 2017 that there could be a debate on reducing the abortion upper time limit. His remarks demonstrated how easily women’s fundamental human rights can become a political football in the scrabble for power.
To the government’s credit, in June 2017 Northern Irish women were granted access to abortion services on the NHS if they travel to England and Wales. However, the existing situation means abortion remains illegal in six UK counties, and poorer or more vulnerable women who can’t afford to travel across the Irish Sea are still denied access to their reproductive rights. As a result, the UN recently accused the UK government of violating Northern Irish women’s human rights.
Again, abortion isn’t about to be banned in Great Britain. Indeed, the anti-choice sections of the Conservative Party are out of step with popular opinion on reproductive rights.
But clearly Caulfield’s call for a debate to reduce the upper time limit is a concern. Historically, Tories have always voted in favour of restricting women’s access to abortion. Worse, we now have more than one prominent Tory MP who openly expresses anti-choice views, including bookie favourite for the next leader: Jacob Rees-Mogg. The backbencher has stated he is completely opposed to abortion and his voting record reflects this. When questioned on whether he believed women should have access to abortion in cases of rape and incest, he called the procedure a “second wrong”.
Rights are rarely taken away overnight. Instead, they are chipped away at, little by little. Where does it start? By normalising anti-choice rhetoric, as we’ve seen from Rees-Mogg and Caulfield. By funding anti-choice organisations like Life, while attempting to sideline pro-choice voices — as happened in 2011. It begins by partnering with and attempting to flatter anti-choice forces like the DUP. Then we see the calls to restrict abortion access — from lowering the time limit to banning terminations in certain circumstances.
All of this has been happening under the Coalition and Conservative governments. Slowly but surely, a narrative builds stating that abortion is wrong and should be further restricted.
When it comes to women’s reproductive rights, we cannot afford to rest on our laurels. We cannot take our rights and safety for granted. If we do, then it’ll be easy enough for the Tory right to come after our right to choose — and we might not realise it’s gone until it’s too late.