Abortion: their morals and ours

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We need to get ready for a big battle over abortion rights, argues Judith Orr, and the deluge of moral outrage about women's lives that will accompany it

The right is seriously mobilising around the issue of abortion. Tory leader David Cameron has stated that he wants to bring the limit down to 20 or 21 weeks and Tory ex-minister Anne Widdecombe has been taking her "pro-life" road show around the country in an effort to rally the troops. This is not something a Tory has been confident enough to do on any issue for many years - though, thanks to local activists, these meetings did not happen without noisy protests outside.

It is clear that the right have been waiting for the opportunity to challenge the abortion law for some years. They have partly succeeded in focusing the debate about the time limit, currently set at 24 weeks, around the issue of viability and away from a women's right to choose.

There have been regular stories in the press claiming that new scientific developments prove the need to bring the time limit down. The medical establishment has rejected this view. Last year's inquiry into the abortion time limit by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee reported: "We have seen no good evidence to suggest that foetal viability has improved significantly since the abortion time limit was last set, and seen good evidence that it has not."

The arguments about why a small minority of women might need to access an abortion at this stage in a pregnancy get little coverage and need to be constantly restated. It is a fact that some young women simply don't realise they are pregnant, some go into denial until they can't hide it, and, in the case of older women, some mistake missed periods for the menopause and don't realise for some months that they are pregnant.

One other major reason that women need access to abortion at a later stage is the discovery of severe foetal abnormality. For example, one important test for impairments such as Down's syndrome is amniocentesis. This cannot be carried out until 16 weeks, the results may take two to three weeks, and then the woman may need counselling and advice. If she decides to have an abortion it may be yet another week or two before this can be arranged.

The truth is the anti-abortionists are not concerned with any of this. They want to stop all abortions happening but they are faced with the fact that an overwhelming majority, 83 percent of the British population, support legal abortion. So they are left with trying to chip away at the time limit where they think they can make gains. If they win this time they will come back for more.

The anti-abortionists will have gained confidence from the defensiveness voiced by some pro-choice campaigners in recent months. Even David Steel, the man responsible for bringing the 1967 Abortion Act onto the statute book, has been quoted as saying that "everyone can agree there are too many abortions" and "there is a mood now which is that if things go wrong you can get an abortion, and it is irresponsible". The implication is that women are frivolous about having abortions, and it repeats the myth that women use them as a form of contraception.

For socialists the key argument is that women are more than incubators: they have the right to control their own bodies. No woman should be forced to continue a pregnancy if she feels she cannot cope.

So there is no optimum or "normal" number of abortions to aim for. Every woman who needs one should be able to access one speedily and safely. When abortion was illegal no one knew how many took place. Many women never told anyone for fear of the law (see below) and so the pre-1967 numbers were based on speculation and the number of women who ended up in hospital with sometimes life threatening complications. Neither will it ever be known how many women went through with pregnancies simply because they didn't want to take the physical or legal risk of a backstreet abortion.

Sex education

Today, far from being too easy to get an abortion, there is massive unevenness in access across the country, which is why any new amendments to extend and improve provision are to be welcomed. The 1967 act was never about giving women full choice. As David Steel himself said at the time, "We want to stamp out the backstreet abortions, but it is not the intention of the promoters of the bill to leave a wide-open door for abortion on request." Politicians claimed that opening up abortion provision too much would encourage sexual activity.

Today the right still argue that access to sex education, contraception and abortion is too open, claiming it has led to Britain having the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Europe. Every year almost 50,000 young women under 18 fall pregnant in Britain - six times that of Holland, four times that of Italy and three times higher than in France. In the 1970s rates of teenage pregnancy were similar across Western Europe. The idea that this is because of too much sex education and the availability of contraception and abortion would be laughable if it didn't have such tragic consequences.

The example of the US is telling. Over $1 billion has been spent on abstinence programmes in schools yet the rates of teenage pregnancies are the highest in Western industrialised countries. Britain comes second.

One way Holland has achieved the lowest rate of teenage pregnancies across Western Europe is by having compulsory sex education in schools from the age of five and continued explicit and supportive sex education from then on. In contrast, comprehensive sex education is still not a required part of the curriculum in Britain, making provision uneven. What is needed is more openness about sex, and systematic and sympathetic sex education in schools from a young age.

Of course, some teenagers choose to become parents and they should not be demonised. But society needs to make it as easy as possible to avoid unwanted pregnancy, and attempting to repress natural sexual behaviour will not do that.

We are a long way from the crushing morality of the 1950s, when any women who got pregnant outside of marriage faced stark choices: illegal and dangerous abortion, have the baby and then feel there was no alternative but to give it up for adoption, or keep the child and face society's opprobrium. It is hard to convey the stigma that went with being an "unmarried mother" - a pejorative description which used to be commonplace. The term "unmarried father" was never used.

Happily, today millions of us have relationships and babies without feeling the same pressure to marry or conform, and no serious section of the ruling class can argue that women should be pushed back into the home. Women are now a permanent part of the workforce and women's paid work is vital to the economy.

Yet despite all the advances and changes in women's lives, ideas about the family, and a woman's role, still persist. We are told that the family is a vital cornerstone of society, and women's role within it as child bearer is central. Such ideology still plays an important part in shaping expectations and consciousness. It helps ensure that people continue to see it as natural that the family carries the bulk of the economic burden of bringing up the next generation.

This lies behind the moral panic about single mothers and working class families that politicians still regularly whip up. If you have a baby on your own it will be financially difficult, unless you have a very highly paid job and good maternity leave. But the state makes you go through hoops to get assistance. You are seen as feckless and undeserving, and in some way hardship is still judged as an appropriate state for you.

Women can't win. If they have children young they will struggle to be financially secure but will get little support. If they wait to have a baby until financially stable later in life they will receive little sympathy if they then face problems with fertility as they have tried to "buck their biology". When women do have children they can only stay at home without criticism if they are not a "burden" on the state. Any single parent on benefits will, from October, be forced to look for work when the youngest child is 12 rather than 16 as in the past. New Labour wants to bring this threshold down to seven years by 2010. This completely ignores the reality of the lack of affordable and flexible childcare that means some low paid workers can't afford to leave the house to work.

In contrast, middle or upper class women can make other choices. They can leave their children with nannies or send them to boarding school at a tender age and not be accused of neglect. Imagine if Madeleine McCann's parents had been manual workers rather than doctors and had been staying on a package deal in Benidorm, leaving their children locked in a flat while they went to a pub. I believe the media would then have taken a very different stance. Instead of sympathy and global support we would have witnessed at best a wave of vitriol about selfishness and irresponsibility, and possibly even the prospect of legal charges.

But the other side of this is that women today have more economic independence and are more sexually liberated than 40 years ago.

Whatever the state or politicians say about our lives we are not going to go back to a time when our lives were totally restricted and repressed. Women are not going back in the box. The enthusiasm for the pickets against Anne Widdecombe's rallies and the success of the 300-strong Abortion Rights meeting in London in January show that. Veteran activists are being reinvigorated, but most importantly a new layer of young women are getting involved in the campaign to defend and extend abortion rights. Many are hearing these arguments for the first time.

There is no time to lose. Every trade unionist and activist needs to raise the issue of abortion rights at work, in the trade unions and at college. During the last serious battle to defend abortion rights the bigots were pushed back by the collective strength of the trade union movement. We need to be prepared to make such a mobilisation again.

But by taking on the wider arguments about women's oppression, morality and class we can do more than stop the current attacks. Already there are thousands of women, and men, who are angry about women's position in society, about the rise of raunch culture, unequal pay and the lack of childcare. Right now we have a real opportunity to win this new generation to socialist politics and the fight for women's liberation.


Judith Orr is the author of Sexism and the System published by Bookmarks, £3. To join Abortion Rights go to www.abortionrights.org.uk.


Before abortion was legal

For the first 30 years of my life abortion was illegal in this country.

Almost as soon as I got involved in politics in the late 1950s, a friend came round to my flat and asked to stay with me for a few days. She had just had an abortion; the foetus had come away in the toilet. She had to borrow lots of money and was frightened she would be found out and imprisoned.

We sometimes had telephone calls from teenage girls giving false names and asking if they could come and stay. They were afraid they would be chucked out of their home or arrested after having abortions.

In the late 1970s I interviewed an old lady who had had an abortion as a young woman. She insisted I did not give her name or anything that could reveal her identity. Even though abortion was by then legal she was still worried that she might get into trouble.

I have friends who have told me horror stories after they realise I am in favour of a woman's right to choose, but they always say I am the only person they have ever told and I must not tell anyone else.

It is terrible that people are still frightened of the law, even though it no longer applies.

Mary Phillips