Is it time for abortion to return to the political agenda?

I wrote the following article for the F Word, in the weeks after the election. In light of todays announcements, I think it remains very relevant.

June 2010 F Word.

I take for granted the right to autonomy over my body. I have grown up secure in the knowledge that, should I ever find myself pregnant, the law is unlikely to force me to continue a pregnancy against my will. I am part of a generation of British women who look at the rhetoric of the debate around women’s healthcare issues in the US and count our blessings that we are so progressive that our ‘right’ to safe, legal termination of a pregnancy is not threatened.

It seems that my complacency is shared. In the run up to the election – often described as the ‘Mumsnet’ election – there was little discussion of abortion. The Fawcett Society established the position of each political party on issues affecting women and did not mention it. We take for granted access to safe, legal terminations.

trustwomensign.jpgIn 2008, a series of challenges to the current upper-time-limit for abortions of 24 weeks was tacked on to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, I was gratified to see the overwhelming majority of MP’s vote the proposals down.

But in an interview with The Catholic Herald two days after the General Election was called, David Cameron made sure abortion was a political issue again, with his renewed commitment to cut the upper time limit to 20 weeks. A pledge made as part of a ‘moral’ agenda which served to placate the Christian right, who have been busy establishing themselves within his party.

His new Equalities Minister, Theresa May, has long since backed a cut to the time limit, and the make-up of the House of Commons has dramatically changed, with little information available about the views of new MPs on this issue.

The lack of legal clarity on the importance of a women’s autonomy over her body leaves the door wide open for repeated challenges to fragile abortion legislation

The abortion ‘rights’ I took for granted are beginning to look very fragile. Perhaps it is time to welcome a re-emergence of abortion onto the political agenda, as an opportunity to establish our rights once and for all.

Misguided complacency?

My complacency about the security of my own ‘right’ not to be forced into going through a pregnancy against my will has been based on a notion that this ‘right’ has been won.

In England, difficulty obtaining appropriate medical services is a major factor in delaying terminations being carried out. An increasing number of terminations are carried out by the private sector, under contract to the NHS, and doctors say that services are limited, especially for procedures carried out later in pregnancy. Stories about medical professionals refusing to offer reproductive health services are being heard with increasing regularity and this objection is being guided and celebrated by anti-abortion groups.

The Northern Ireland Offences against the Person Act 1861 underpins a legal tangle of legislation governing access to safe, legal abortion for women in Northern Ireland. It is not so much a legislative framework as a web ensuring that, even in 2010, Northern Irish women are forced to travel to the British mainland and pay for legal terminations, or seek out unsafe alternatives.

Under current abortion legislation, I still require two doctors to agree that my reasons for not wanting a pregnancy to proceed are adequate. My complacency about my ‘right’ to make that decision is the product of a culture where doctors interpret legislation liberally.

What value does a woman’s autonomy and capacity have?

ottawa pro choice.jpgThe moral implications of restricting the autonomy of people to consent to, or refuse, medical treatment when their capacity is limited by age or illness are critical in health policy. The finer points of these ethical debates are fought out in a blaze of publicity in our highest courts. Your right to make decisions about medical treatment is usually assumed – unless there is reason to believe you are unable to understand the implications of it, if you lack capacity.

In UK law there is no question of a foetus or embryo having a legal interest which can be represented in court, and during childbirth the moral responsibility to my unborn child is mine. Treatment is dictated by me as the patient. If I understand the implications, I can refuse treatment. Even if a doctor thinks a C-section is in the best interests of my baby, I can’t be forced to have the surgery against my will.

There is no other area of medicine where we start off with the assumption that the patient is not competent to understand the moral implications of their treatment. This is the only area of medicine where evidence of reduced capacity isn’t required before a patient’s wishes can be ignored.

The current starting point for debate is – when is it permissible for a woman to end a pregnancy? In any other area of medicine the question would be: when is it acceptable to withhold an available treatment for a diagnosed condition, or force her to become a mother against her will?

The lack of legal clarity on the importance of a women’s autonomy over her body leaves the door wide open for repeated challenges to fragile abortion legislation.

Why the 24 week limit?

We have seen
epeated attacks on the upper-time-limit of 24 weeks, and these offer a perfect example of how emotive rhetoric is used to obfuscate basic legal, medical and scientific principles.

We see claims that the survival of babies at younger and younger gestations has brought to light new information which means we need to reform abortion legislation.

It is true that technology has given us the means to save babies born at ever younger gestational ages. When the Nuffield Council of Bioethics explored the issues raised by these advances, they showed that there were stark ethical questions involved in the treatment of these infants.

Each time this is discussed in Parliament, the discussion about the medical ethics of abortion is over quickly, while the contributions of those who oppose abortion on the grounds of their own moral beliefs swallow up parliamentary time

This view was shared by the House of Commons’ former Science and Technology Committee, the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Faculty for Sexual & Reproductive Healthcare, and the British Association of Perinatal Medicine. They have all been repeatedly very clear: there is no new evidence to suggest we should review the 24-week-limit for abortions, and there is nothing to suggest that medical ethics should not apply here.

Emotion not evidence

In the absence of scientific evidence, footage produced by new technologies like 3/4D scans adds emotional weight to calls for this cut. Loops of footage are created, to give the impression of a foetus expressing human emotion, or ‘playing’ in utero. This footage is offered to illustrate the argument for a review of the 24-week limit. Nadine Dorries notoriously posted on her website a misrepresention of the testimony of a doctor involved in a late-term abortion, and fictional anecdotes about botched abortions, and foetuses grasping hands are a recurring feature of ‘pro-life’ mythology.

This claim of ‘new’ evidence is usually contextualised by comment about a rising problem of ‘social abortion’ at 26 weeks. This is in spite of the fact that even the briefest analysis of the number of abortions carried out in the UK shows that late-term abortions are a tiny percentage of abortions as a whole, and that a handful are carried out for so-called social reasons. Social does not mean frivolous.

Evidence of doctors like Professor John Wyatt is offered as a clear sign that the medical establishment is divided on abortion, with little mention that he is a member of the Christian Medical fellowship, or the fact that his argument is not a medical one, but a moral one.

We know that the rate of late-term abortions is consistently low. We have clear evidence that placing further restrictions and delays on this process would adversely affect the tiny number of women who have had to grapple with heartbreaking decisions already. When one thinks about the physical trauma alone it is blindingly obvious that this is no easy option.

The attack on the 24-week limit directly affects a handful of vulnerable women – but it establishes the principle that the moral concern of a minority is enough to override basic medical ethics in ‘debates’ about restricting essential health services to women.

Emotive propaganda defines the ‘debate’

The power of branding a movement which is about restriction of medical services at a cost of 68,000 lives every year, as ‘pro-life’, is not to be underestimated.

Public discussions around abortion have been successfully framed as a ‘moral debate’ – with protection of a hypothetical ‘baby’ at the centre. Debate about health services is dominated by discussion of a ‘person’ who doesn’t exist legally, or medically. The issues of capacity and autonomy of the living patient, which would form the basis of any other discussion of medical ethics, are lost amidst the din. Each time this is discussed in Parliament, the discussion about the medical ethics of abortion is over quickly, while the contributions of those who oppose abortion on the grounds of their own moral beliefs swallow up parliamentary time.

In recent political history, there has been little desire among the majority of politicians and pro-choice groups for abortion to become a political issue – anti-abortion lobby groups have pushed it back onto the political agenda

There will never be a satisfactory conclusion to the question of where life begins – it is a moral question of opinion and belief.

Women are deemed ethically competent to understand the moral implications of their treatment in every other area of medicine: why not here? The barrages of anecdotes offered by the anti-abortion movement about people who use late-term abortion frivolously aren’t reflected in British abortion figures.

If women’s access to essential health services is to be restricted on the basis of the moral beliefs of the minority, shouldn’t there be some evidence to support those views? Shouldn’t there be some evidence that women are not ethically competent to decide for themselves, that medical ethics should no longer apply?

Political will for abortion reform?

Even before the election, there were signs that there was increasing political will for abortion to return to the political agenda.

abortionlegal.jpgPressure to devolve legislation governing reproductive health services in Northern Ireland was mounted on the back of a continued platform of abortion restriction, similar pressure has been increasing in Scotland, where the argument for devolving decision-making around women’s reproductive health service has been pinned onto this ‘need’ to reduce the 24-week upper-time-limit on abortions.

We have an All Party Pro Life Group within the House of Commons, whose administrator is funded by the innocuous sounding CARE.

CARE is one of a number of Christian lobby groups within Parliament. ‘Christian Action, Research and Education’ has been described as ‘architects’ of vari

ous attempts to restrict abortion provision, and its establishment of a presence in Parliament has come under scrutiny from the Charities Commission. Its annual report shows that it has had 20 interns working within the House of Commons, at a cost of £70000, even though it is prohibited from political lobbying. Its interns are present in the offices of senior members of the Conservative party, in the office of a backbench Labour MP and the offices of several Liberal Democrat spokespeople. ‘Christian Concern for our Nation’ spends a great deal of time and money supporting MPs who will further its cause.

These groups are mirroring tactics of fundamentalist Christian groups in the US, with a concerted, long-term strategy of attacking gay rights and abortion. Their influence is being keenly felt within the Conservative party, and their presence is established in a House of Commons which has changed dramatically.

In recent political history, there has been little desire among the majority of politicians and pro-choice groups for abortion to become a political issue – these groups have pushed it back onto the political agenda.

Seventy one of the MPs who voted against the cut in the upper-time-limit for abortion stood down at the end of the last parliamentary session, and little is known about the views of the MP’s who have just taken their seats. It may be tempting to dismiss Nadine Dorries MP when she says that “the real opportunity for abortion law reform would arise with a Conservative government”, but pre-election polls showed a majority of Conservative MPs supported a cut in the 24-week limit.

Our Prime Minister and our Equalities Minister both support a cut in the 24-week limit, and regardless of Cameron’s murmurings of ‘abortion on demand’, it seems likely that this issue will find itself discussed in Parliament sooner rather than later.

While it has always been an issue where MPs vote with their conscience, the fragile nature of our coalition government means that the need to support its policies could take precedence over legal, medical and scientific arguments which support a woman’s right to autonomy over her own body.

But given the frailty of our legislative frameworks in the first place, is an opportunity to re-examine abortion law such a terrible thing?

Is the time right for abortion to return to the political agenda?

UK anti-abortion lobby groups have adopted the strategies of their US counterparts – these groups have an established a presence in the Houses of Parliament and have a political party which has demonstrated its willingness to push this agenda. We have a Prime Minister and an Equalities Minister who have pledged support for abortion restriction. But the picture is not as bleak as it first appears.

David Cameron’s perfunctory nod of support for ‘abortion on demand’ shows that he at least recognises where public opinion lies on this issue.

We don’t know yet what the views are of the 233 new MPs who took up their seats after the election, but websites like They Work for You make it very easy to ask

Whatever Dorries may believe, the Conservative party is far from united in its desire to cut the abortion limit, and senior figures like Boris Johnson and Oliver Letwin have been shown to be reluctant to embrace the agenda of the Christian Right. Support for abortion restriction is concentrated within the right of the Conservative party, and the need for David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s coalition to reduce the influence of this faction is key to their government’s survival.

Public opinion, even in the face of concerted strategies to frame this debate using ‘pro-life’ rhetoric, still overwhelmingly supports a woman’s right to choose. As the main opposition, Labour are unlikely to disagree – preferring policy around reproductive health to be governed by the best available evidence. US President Barack Obama was met with global approval when he lifted the ‘global gag rule’, which stipulated aid could not given to organisations that funded or provided information about abortion.

tiller.jpgHigh-profile cases of pregnant children being denied abortions, and the assassination of physician George Tiller have etched the dangers of abortion into the public consciousness. The ‘moral authority’ of the Catholic Church in particular has worn thin in the face of repeated demonstrations of how easily the suffering of real people is dismissed with the rhetoric of sexual morality and family values. Organisations like Catholics for Choice and senior individuals in many denominations of the Christian faith have shown that they do not believe that opposition to health services is synonymous with Christianity.

We don’t know yet what the views are of the 233 new MPs who took up their seats after the election, but websites like They Work for You make it very easy to ask.

We do not need to mirror the tactics of the groups that seek to push abortion up the agenda; there is a reason they have to manufacture the appearance of public support and scientific evidence. The moral, scientific, medical and legal arguments against restriction of abortion speak for themselves. But the lesson we can take from these groups is the level of organisation and skill they employ.

The same groups who seek to attack abortion rights are the groups who sought to undermine equality legislation and gay rights, and the tireless campaigning by groups like Stonewall and the Gay Times has created an environment where David Cameron and Theresa May’s political positions could only become tenable by renouncing previous positions on this issue.

Political will for abortion reform ultimately comes only with public support, and with this in mind, perhaps it is time to welcome abortions return to the political agenda. This time following the lead set out in the fight for LGBT equality, so that a minority who wish to impose their moral agenda on British women do not define the debate.

Photo of ‘Trust Women’ sign at a 2008 pro-choice protest by ge’shmally, photo of Ottawa pro-choice rally by Jenn Farr, photo of protest banner in Argentina by Gabby DC, photo of
rally for George Tiller by Melissa Gira Grant, shared on Flickr under a Creative Commons license

An added dimension to the Unison issue..

After a year where Unison ensured that their members could not fight cuts, by purging members who objected to their collective voice being used to shout they were to be hit hardest and first.

After a year of them behaving like pigs with snouts hopeful for a disinterested Labour trough, it seems they have provided the first target for the expected attack on employment rights and unions. Not quite Wisconsin yet, but according to Political Scrapbook, Plymouth Council have derecognised Unison. That was an interesting faultline to pick to challenge the rights of British workers to organise.

Statement from the Prime Minster on behalf of the rest of country.

Dear Next Generation,

We fucked it up. We are sorry, we didn’t realise. The credit boom was just so much fun. Please stop rioting. We will sort it out and stop being fucknuts, we will address the political vacuum we created. We will address our corruption, criminality, and the damage we did to your economy and your society. We will give you back your access to education, legal representation, and routes out of poverty. We will give you the tools to fix the mess we left when we are gone. We will address the risk posed by current threats to our economy. Will you please stop rioting now.

Signed the PM on behalf of everyone who enjoyed the credit boom, free education, decent housing, a welfare state……


PS Only joking. It’s all your fault.


…been absent over last few days. Will say this, before I actually get chance to sit and write whats going on in my head; we have entered the ‘political crisis’ part of the financial crisis aftermath(prologue?).

The markets have no faith in government. Our society is being pushed to extremes, a crisis of authority, and there is violence on the streets. Crisis of democracy begins here.


What do you call it when British mothers lose:their political representation, their ability to work, their ability to survive without work, access to the legal system, and still have to support their children while politicians demonise them? British politics.

When is this OK. When mothers don't earn enough to pay rent, childcare, and keep their kids afloat without state help.

Are there any reasons that more mothers are in this position: Yes. Wages have stagnated, we have the most expensive childcare in Europe, house prices went mental, and the gender pay gap has turned into a chasm for mothers.

Did mothers choose any of these things? No.

Who did? Well, it wasn't so much choices as failure of rhe politicians and the monkeys they had looking after the economy.

How many mothers does this apply to? Quite a lot, but it is only a problem if they stop fucking their husbands for any reason.

How can a mother of young children avoid being disenfranchised and losing all access to the political system. Marriage. Or earning more than £25k a year.

Should those women protest? Yes. As long as they are protesting for Labour and against the mean old Tories. Their votes are useful and make Labour leftys feel good about themselves.

Is there a debate where those women can be heard: Unfortunately not. Unions have been co-opted by Labour, and quite frankly you dirty whores should be at home looking after your kids. All the means of accessing the debate belong to Labour, and unfortunately, are being used to gather votes as we speak. Occasionally Labour will wheel one of their women out to speak for you.

What about the media? Well, the media thinks you are being a bit hysterical if you state facts, so would rather you be quiet because it upsets those who still have political representation, the means to work, the means to survive without work and aren't being told that the only valid subject for debate is what scrounging whore's they are.

In the US…

In the US politics has strangled their ability to deal with anything. Because their political system was bought long ago. Our political discourse bears very little relation to reality any more. When you are in the midst of a crisis, do you want the solution guided by a debate that isn’t even grounded in reality? That is grounded in what we aspire to be or despise, and what pollsters and media types tell us we are?

There is a reason economics and social policy is more interesting than politics. Economics and social policy are about who we are. What we do, did.  You can’t plan real stuff on political fantasies, it goes wrong. Our political system’s is no more able to deal with our financial crisis, than the Whitehouse is able to deal with theirs. They have had since 2008 to show they are.

The question of whether the US can raise the debt ceiling is no longer the queestion. THe fact it was a queustion at all, has raised many more serious issues. Much like ‘hackgate’. When do we get to call our democracy for what it is. Deliberately broken and sold.

Labour have now finished exploiting the women affected by the cuts. Will be airbrushing them out now. Kthanxbai

In 1888 1400 politicised and long exploited girls and women went on strike at the Bryant and May match factory. Their efforts were whitewashed out of history and credit given to middle class Fabian Annie Besant. They are rarely credited as being present at the birth of the union movement. This year the Labour party continued this great tradition and exploited, marginalised, and silenced women whose lives are being been destroyed by welfare reform, housing benefit and local authority cuts. Reforms necessary because of their economic failure. While taking credit for fighting for them. Yesterday one of the 1boys playing at the heart of the Labour Party laid out how the precariously employed, welfare dependent, and in debt working population of this country, could fix their problems by having the Labour Party address gender relations. Now that Labour and their supporters have finished exploiting us, they are to pretend we do not exist. Not in the past, present, or future. While blaming us for their mistakes.

The line ‘women are disproportionately affected by the cuts’ has prefixed so many articles about the austerity measures our political parties are committed to, it isn’t necessary to add it. Since Yvette Cooper commissioned the the gender audit of last years budget which showed how 72% of the burden of the cuts would fall on women’s shoulders, it has been repeatedly confirmed that the welfare reform, housing benefit cuts, and local authority cuts that achieve this would also have been Labour priorities. A narrative lifted from The Sun, used to hide those affected under sound bites about ‘grafters’. The latest report from the Fawcett Society, confirmed her belief about what this toxic combination of cuts is doing.

The enormity of the effect of these changes on predominantly female lone parent households skewed The Fawcett Society’s results. The report also showed how likely those affected by one ‘cut’, were to be hit by a combination. Women so grossly affected because a few peak, pre-children earning years aren’t enough to cover the motherhood pay chasm, exorbitant childcare costs and rent, the financial sacrifice of caring for relatives, or a retirement pot damaged because your contribution to society wasn’t paid or recognised. The effect not a drop in living standards, but to the things that allow them to live at all. Housing benefit changes adding potency to this cocktail, because the property boom didn’t really mix with the economic inequality motherhood and caring responsibilities bring. .

With our largest public sector union, Unison, having the collective voice and dues of 1.3million members, largely from local authorities, being heard shouldn’t have been a problem for women.. About half of Unison’s members are part time workers, the full times ones amongst the lowest earners in the country. Most Local Authorities unable to commit to paying a Living Wage, the low pay of the mainly female membership meant they were also likely to be hit by the housing benefit cuts their employers are delivering. As well as welfare reform, and cuts to local authority services and jobs. At the head of 2Unison, Dave Prentis, currently earning over £92’000, sold their collective voice to parrot the Labour line that it was sensible they should be hit first, hardest and with least discussion.

Unison have long come down hard on members who question their connection to Labour. Their reputation as a ‘witchfinder’ union well deserved. This archaic practice of ‘purging’ members, justified by the need to prevent that other relic of the left, the Socialist Workers Party from exerting undue influence. It is now those who wish to fight cuts that affect them or question the untenable affiliation with the Labour Party, who are being purged. Minor rules used to expel members from the organisation they pay for, which was supposed to be their collective voice. A collective voice that must be difficult to articulate, when you won’t even ballot your members for their view. Entire branches are resigning, in protest.

Debate around the cuts has been shaped by a heavily politically affiliated mainstream media, with bizarre tribalism clouding extraordinary political consensus. Big hitter columnists are happy to wax lyrical about about their concern for those affected. Repeating the mantra Surestart, making sure tiny differences between the social policies of our parties are magnified into significance and we are seen as helpless recipients of social policy that wasn’t helping anyway…. The sympathy we receive, no substitute for real discussion about how all three political parties can be agreed on this. Labour tribalists at so called ‘grassroots’ have instead decided that Labour are the voice of opposition, regardless of their policies. And anyone disagreeing needs to shut up.

In January of this year, I was invited to speak at ‘Netroots’. A conference paid for by the TUC, which sought to co-opt opposition to austerity measures as support for the Labour Party. After Netroots I was described as a 3‘radical’, ‘intent on arguing that nothing vaguely linked to mainstream politics was acceptable’ because I pointed out that the housing benefit reforms, and commitment to minimising cuts to other departments by focusing on welfare spending, were Labour policy. That this couldn’t really be the case without disproportionately affecting women. Mocked as thick, because the questions I had went beyond party tribalism. The privileged guppies who make up the unduly influential ‘left wing’ political blogosphere at the heart of Netroots, went onto wash the issue of welfare reform and local authority cuts from their pages, while a manufactured debate about voting reform provided adequate justification for political activists turning away while working class women were sold down the river. Any woman protesting, will find herself stood behind Ed Miliband as he speaks for her, or castigated as an extreme radical if she objects.

As Labour swear their opposition to the Murdoch agenda, they have taken the pretty safe gamble that they are under no obligation to represent us. Cruddas, Miliband, Glasman, Rutherford, and Purnell sit in rooms fantasising about versions of the working class where we didn’t exist, and where we can be blamed for their abject failure, under a narrative peddled by the media giant they sold our democracy to. And discussion based on the idea that that is all just fine will shape our news for the next


Inclusion of voices in the mainstream media

When you have a politically affiliated media who have been used to seeing every issue in terms of party position, change is complicated. Voices can be included in the mainstream narrative, but when political discourse has shifted so far from reality, and political parties have drifted from even recognising the population they serve, inclusion of the voices of those affected by policy is going throw up many problems.

If participation in ‘the debate’ means discussing whether your existence is to blame for all societies ills, and discussion between party members about the extent to which they should drop the responsibility to represent the electorate is considered mainstream political debate, there is a problem. The voices of those affected by policy will not only have to challenge the position of political parties. It has been confirmed that the media have more influence on politics than voters. This realisation will eventually change the facile nature of mainstream political debate. If the debate never moves on and your contribution cannot move past this, because political parties don’t want to discuss it, then that is a problem. In the interim voices of those affected  can take part in the debate in the terms which are acceptable, or they can demand that the debate shifts. Power relations are such that one person refusing to take part in a debate shaped by those terms will have little effect. But it’s a start.

Politics should not exist in a vacuum. It has done for a long time, a bubble populated by the media and politicians and activists. Sealed shut. Those seals are broken. And I would quite like to bust them wide open. In the short term, I’ll go with being open that there is a problem in the first place.