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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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Can a “Momentum moment” revive the fortunes of Germany’s SPD?

Support for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, behind the far right Alternative for Germany.

Germany has crossed a line: for the first time in the history of the federal republic, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, polling just 15.5 per cent – half a point behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The poll was published on the day the SPD membership received their postal ballots on whether to enter another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and inflamed debate further.

For the grassroots coalition opposed to the so-called GroKo (Große Koalition) the poll is proof that the SPD needs a fundamental change of political direction. Within the two grand coalitions of recent years, the SPD has completely lost its political profile. The beneficiary each time has been the far right. Yet another GroKo seems likely to usher in the end of the SPD as a Volkspartei (people’s party). Taking its place would be the AfD, a deeply disturbing prospect.

For the SPD leadership, the results are proof that the party must enter a grand coalition. Failure to do so would likely mean new elections (though this is disputed, as a minority government is also a possibility) and an SPD wipeout. The SPD’s biggest problem, they argue, is not a bad political programme, but a failure to sell the SPD’s achievements to the public.

But is it? The richest 45 Germans now own as much as the bottom 50 per cent. According to French economist Thomas Piketty, German income inequality has now sunk to levels last seen in 1913. Perhaps most shockingly, the nominally left-wing SPD has been in government for 16 of the last 20 years. Whatever it has been doing in office, it hasn’t been nearly enough. And there’s nothing in the present coalition agreement that will change that. Indeed, throughout Europe, mainstream left parties such as the SPD have stuck to their economically centrist programmes and are facing electoral meltdown as a result.

The growing popular anger at the status quo is being channeled almost exclusively into the AfD, which presents itself as the alternative to the political mainstream. Rather than blame the massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, however, the AfD points the finger at the weakest in society: immigrants and refugees.

So how can the SPD turn things around by the next federal election in 2021? 

The party leadership has promised a complete programme of political renewal, as it does after every disappointing result. But even if this promise were kept this time, how credible is political renewal within a government that stands for more of the same? The SPD would be given the finance ministry, but would be wedded to an austerity policy of no new public debt, and no increased tax rises on the rich. 

SPD members are repeatedly exhorted to separate questions of programmatic renewal from the debate about who leads the party. But these questions are fundamentally linked. The SPD’s problem is not its failure to make left-wing promises, but the failure of its leaders to actually keep them, once in office.

The clear counter-example for genuine political renewal and credibility is, of course, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. In spite of all dire warnings that a left-wing programme was a sure-fire vote-loser, Labour’s massively expanded membership – and later electorate – responded with an unprecedented and unforeseen enthusiasm. 

A radical democratic change on the lines of Labour would save the SPD party from oblivion, and save Germany from an ascendent AfD. But it would come at the cost of the careers of the SPD leadership. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, they are fighting it tooth and nail.

Having promised an “especially fair” debate, the conflict over the GroKo has suddenly surged to become Germany’s Momentum moment - and the SPD leadership is doing everything it can to quash the debate. Party communications and so-called “dialogue events” pump out a pro-GroKo line. The ballots sent out this week came accompanied by an authoritative three-page letter on why members should vote for the grand coalition.

Whether such desperate measures have worked or not will be revealed when the voting result is announced on 4 March 2018. Online, sentiment is overwhelmingly against the GroKo. But many SPD members (average age is 60) are not online, and are thought to be more conservative.

Whatever the outcome, the debate isn’t going away. If members can decide on a grand coalition, why not on the leadership itself? A direct election for the leadership would democratically reconnect the SPD with its grassroots.

Unless the growth in inequality is turned around, a fundamental reboot of the SPD is ultimately inevitable. Another grand coalition, however, will postpone this process even further. And what will be left of the SPD by then?

Steve Hudson is a Momentum activist and a member of both Labour and the SPD. He lives in Germany, where he chairs the NoGroKo eV campaign group.