Making Maria Caulfield the vice chair for women shows which side of the abortion debate the Tories are on

Giving the role to the anti-choice MP suggests the party is happy to curtail abortion rights. 

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Amid a reshuffle that did little to silence Theresa May's critics, one comparativley minor promotion is causing uproar becasue of the message it sends to women about the Conservative party's attitude towards their rights. An MP with outspoken anti-choice views, MP Maria Caulfield was made the Conservative Vice Chair for Women, signaling that protecting and improving women’s reproductive rights are not a priority for the Conservative Party and raising major questions about the party's commitment to women’s equality.

The right to abortion is a cornerstone in women’s liberation. Without the freedom to choose what happens to our own bodies, we are not and cannot be free. And yet last year former nurse Caulfield led opposition to proposals to liberalise the abortion laws in England and Wales so they would no longer fall under the 1861 Offence Against the Person Act

A member of the All Party Parliamentary Pro Life Group, Caulfield claimed that the move to liberalise existing laws would be an “unjust and regressive change”. She argued that decriminalisation would lead to “abortion on demand”, and stated that she wanted to give a ‘voice’ to the unborn child. She even suggested that attempts to liberalise our current laws would make “women victims of their bodies”.

It is of course an anti-choice stance that make women “victims of their own bodies”, by denying a woman the freedom to take control of her reproductive health.

The bill Caulfield opposed was designed to help some of the most vulnerable women in society — women who have been raped, who are trapped in violent households, or have uncertain immigration status. These are women who are often too scared to go to a clinic for a termination due to fear of how a violent partner or family member would react. This fear prevents them from accessing reproductive healthcare through formal systems.

As a result, vulnerable and marginalised women often feel they have no choice but to procure an abortion illegally, for example by purchasing abortion pills online. If caught doing so, they could face a hefty prison sentence. Contrary to Caulfield’s claims, they — not the unborn child — are the most “voiceless” in the abortion debate.

Caulfield is entitled to her own personal views on abortion. But women deserve to be represented by someone who is dedicated to fighting for all aspects of our rights and equality — and that includes our rights to bodily autonomy and integrity. At a time when it’s struggling to attract women, the Conservative Party should be doing more to show that they care about our rights and equality.

When it comes to abortion rights, we cannot afford to rest on our laurels. We have seen repeated moves from the Conservative party to restrict women’s access to terminations. All but one of the Tory front bench voted to reduce the upper time limit in 2008. Three years later, in 2011, there was an attempt to prevent abortion providers from offering counselling. Many high profile Tory ministers, including Jeremy Hunt, Jacob Rees-Mogg and David Lidington hold anti-choice views. Following the deal made with the anti-choice DUP last year, Owen Paterson even suggested that a vote on abortion availability could be put on the table.

At best, Caulfield’s appointment reaffirms the message that the Conservative party doesn’t consider women’s reproductive freedom as crucial to our equality. At worst, it suggests that the party is happy to promote an anti-choice agenda. It’s a regressive step that gives hope to the anti-choice movement within the Conservative party, and makes it harder for those of us who care about women’s rights to advocate for better abortion laws across the UK.

Women, including Conservative Party members, don’t need a vice chair who seeks to be a voice for the unborn child, representing a Tory party where many believe women’s reproductive rights should be curtailed. They need representatives who will give a voice to those of us who cannot access a safe, legal abortion, due to their location or circumstance. To respect the dignity of women needing an abortion whether they live in Northern Ireland or Britain, in a violent household or a happy one.

Women deserve better than a vice chair who wants to restrict our rights to freedom and equality. Women deserve a vice chair who will stand up for our right to choose.

Sian Norris is a writer and journalist. She is the Founder and Director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. She is currently the Ben Pimlott writer-in-residence at Birkbeck University's politics department.