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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.

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.

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. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Commons Confidential: Tories turn on “Lord Snooty”

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

With the Good Friday Agreement’s 20th anniversary rapidly approaching, Jeremy Corbyn’s office is scrambling to devise a celebration that doesn’t include Tony Blair. Peace in Northern Ireland is a sparkling jewel in the former prime minister’s crown, perhaps the most precious legacy of the Blair era. But peace in Labour is more elusive. Comrade Corbyn’s plot to airbrush the previous party leader out of the picture is personal. Refusing to share a Brexit referendum platform with Blair and wishing to put him in the dock over Iraq were political. Northern Ireland is more intimate: Corbyn was pilloried for IRA talks and Blair threatened to withdraw the whip after the Islington North MP met Gerry Adams before the 1997 election. The Labour plan, by the way, is to keep the celebrations real – focusing on humble folk, not grandees such as Blair.

Beleaguered Tory Europeans call Brextremist backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg – the hard-line European Research Group’s even harder line no-dealer – “Lord Snooty” behind his back. The Edwardian poshie, who orchestrates Theresa May’s taxpayer-funded Militant Tendency (members of the Brexit party within a party are able to claim “research” fees on expenses), is beginning to grate. My irritated snout moaned that the Beano was more fun and twice as informative as the Tories’ own Lord Snooty.

Labour’s Brexit fissures are getting bigger but Remainers are also far from united. I’m told that Andy Slaughter MP is yet to forgive Chuka Umunna for an “ill-timed” pro-EU amendment to last June’s Queen’s Speech, which led to Slaughter’s sacking from the front bench for voting to stay in the single market. The word is that a looming customs union showdown could trigger more Labexits unless Jezza embraces tariff-free trade.

Cold war warriors encouraging a dodgy Czech spy to smear Comrade Corbyn couldn’t be further from the truth about his foreign adventures. In Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, Corbyn recalled spending a night in Burundi pumping up footballs. The club offered to donate shirts for an aid trip but he asked for the balls to be shared by entire African villages. He was War on Want, not Kim Philby.

Screaming patriot Andrew Rosindell, the chairman of an obscure flags and heraldry committee, is to host a lecture in parliament on the Union Jack. I once witnessed the Romford Tory MP dress Buster, his bull terrier, in a flag waistcoat to greet Maggie Thatcher. She walked past without noticing.

A Tory MP mused that Iain Duncan Smith was nearly nicknamed “Smithy”, not “IDS”, for his 2001 leadership campaign. Smithy would still have proved a lousy commander.

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia