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Think Donald Trump's comments are shocking? They're the law for some UK women

It’s easier to laugh at the backwardness of attitudes elsewhere than to face up to the brutality-by-omission happening on our own shores.

Sometimes, it feels like every day brings a new statement on abortion from someone whose opinion you really don’t want to hear. Actually, sometimes it feels like it’s the very people whose opinions you’d least like to hear who are most likely to vocalise them – or, at least, the men who you least like to think of in relation to your sex life.

That’s what I thought, anyway, when I saw that Republican presidential candidate and noted terrible opinion-haver Donald Trump was suggesting that abortion should be illegal, and women punished for seeking one.

Given the frequency of these sort of comments, it’s easy to start finding them more tedious than scary. Yet this one was unexpectedly terrifying. Although Trump had no answer when asked what the sanction should be, his casual phrasing – “there has to be some form of punishment” – spoke to something many feminists fear: that a significant proportion of men believe women ought to be sanctioned for seeking autonomy.

In Trump’s comments, there is an echo of the logic that drives Margaret Atwood’s dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale, in which women are kept like broodmares, reduced almost solely to their reproductive capacity. They are not individuals who have sovereignty over their own bodies, but subjects whose reproductive capacity belongs to society at large. They must be punished – like naughty children, but without the innocence – if they go against the wishes of the presiding dogma.

Feminists know the response script to this so well by now it seems almost superfluous to restate it: small-government rhetoric that defies logic to still believe in policing women’s bodies is contradictory and patronising; women will always have abortions, and it’s pointless to try to stop them; reproductive rights are the cornerstone of a progressive society. Yet the response to Trump also contained elements which, although broadly on “my” side, were disquieting, particularly from English campaigners: ones that mocked America, specifically, for being backwards.

When a UK citizen mocks America for its abortion rhetoric, it is, to put it mildly, a bit rich. For if what Trump said seems shocking, it’s not as bad as the reality that many women in the UK actually face; specifically those residing in Northern Ireland, where the 1967 Abortion Act – the piece of legislation which provides exemptions to the otherwise illegal act of obtaining an abortion – does not apply. It is this act that protects women in Scotland, England and Wales from prosecution if they seek a termination, essentially acting as a caveat to the earlier 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which makes abortion a criminal offence – and is still on the statute books.

If that sounds confusing, it is a confusion that works to the benefit of the pro-life lobby. Plenty of women are not aware that the 1967 Act doesn’t replace the previous law, and even fewer know that it doesn’t extend to Northern Ireland. In fact, if you were to stop English women in the street and take a straw poll, it’s likely a sizeable number wouldn’t be aware that there are parts of the UK where a woman is not able to get a safe, legal abortion. Yet official figures from 2013 suggest that around 800 Northern Irish women make the journey to England every year.

Often undertaking the journey covertly, these women are not only forced overseas to access what is in truth a relatively minor (and safe) healthcare procedure, but are made to pay to do so – because they, unlike other UK residents, are not eligible to have the procedure on the NHS.

Alternatively, they can remain in Northern Ireland and obtain an abortion illegally; either by importing the abortion pill, or by other methods. In January this year, a 21-year-old woman from County Down appeared in court after doing the former; charged under the 1861 Act, she could face a sentence up to life imprisonment.

This is scarier than Trump’s blitheness. Let me state it again: if you are reading this in the UK, it is your government allowing this to happen. It is under the law of your country that women are forced to risk their lives taking medication without the supervision of a doctor; are tried for 19th-century crimes in 2016; are forced to make difficult and costly journeys to access healthcare that ought to be available to them under the principle that guides the rest of the NHS: free at the point of service. 

These are women who have to place Ryanair flights they can’t really afford on credit cards because the state has decided to make their lives slightly more difficult, rather than rethink its own prejudices. Because it is easier to shepherd them out of the way – to make them go and have their abortions somewhere over there, so that those made uncomfortable by the biological reality of female bodies don’t have to face the sort of tough questions the women themselves must consider.

We are excellent at making women someone else’s problem. It's easy to see why: it is certainly less miserable to laugh at the backwardness of attitudes elsewhere (America; Ireland) than it is to face up to the brutality-by-omission happening on our own shores. But statistically, you know a woman who has had an abortion (although, statistically, those lawmakers do too). 

I am always wary of the idea one need imagine misogyny hurting a mother, sister or daughter in order to acknowledge it as a problem, but I’m also practical, and if that is what it takes to conjure up the appropriate empathy, so be it. Because that is, ultimately, the question: if you couldn't forget that one in three of the women you know might undergo this, what would you want the law to be?

The FPA has guidance on how you can help campaign for abortion rights in Northern Ireland. Additionally, Abortion Support Network accept donations to help fund women from the island of Ireland to access abortions overseas

Stephanie Boland is head of digital at Prospect. She tweets at @stephanieboland.

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”