Abortion Wars is a fantastic analysis of past and present-day debates and fights for abortion rights — but it is also a tool for organisation and resistance.
Judith Orr describes the period we are living in as “a choice moment”, shaped by the clash between huge threats from Donald Trump and the anti-choice movement on the one hand and the growth of movements for women’s rights, like the women’s marches in January 2017 and abortion rights movements in Ireland and Poland.
Orr explains that abortion is as old as humanity. Women have always sought to control their fertility. She explores how and why the state, often with the backing of the church, has tried to take this control away from women — locating their ideal role as child bearing and in the family.
Where there have been attempts to control women’s fertility, there has also been resistance — and Orr sees the struggle for abortion rights as part of the struggle for women’s liberation more broadly.
Orr is clear: abortion has always been a class issue. When the first laws banning abortion were put through in 1861, abortion was pushed onto the “back street”, where thousands of working class women suffered and died due to unsafe abortions. Rich women, however, could always access the best birth control and find ways of acquiring an abortion.
But working class women have power due to their class position. Orr describes how, as women entered the workforce in growing numbers, they began to raise demands for birth control and abortion rights in their trade unions.
This movement accelerated into the 1960s, culminating in the 1967 Abortion Act, which transformed the lives of working class women — and men. The act alleviated some of the pressure on the family.
No sooner was the 1967 Act won then it came under attack. The struggle to defend it mobilised huge, militant numbers, never before seen in support of abortion rights.
The descriptions of workers’ struggle to defend abortion rights are some of the most interesting and inspiring in the book, including some fascinating interviews with participants.
Orr tells of the incredible struggle in 1979 against the Corrie Bill that tried to restrict access to abortion. Due to huge pressure from below, the TUC called a demonstration in defence of abortion rights.
Jan Nielsen remembers the demonstration, describing how remarkable it was to have a demonstration for abortion rights made up of 40 percent men holding trade union banners. Activists had won abortion’s place as a workplace issue.
Again, in 1987, the Alton Bill tried to cut the time limit for abortion to 18 weeks. The trade union movement was mobilised alongside abortion rights activists to protest against the bill. Some 3,000 people marched in Glasgow with banners from numerous trade unions including firefighters and rail workers.
Abortion Wars goes far beyond being a history lesson. It dives into some of the most pressing arguments around abortion rights today. From time limits, doctors’ notes, forced counselling sessions, to the harassment and stigmatisation of women who seek abortion by “pro-life” groups such as 40 Days for Life and Abort 67. Orr is consistent and clear — a woman’s right to choose is fundamental.
Orr also takes up the argument that the church is the main enemy to women’s fertility rights. While the church plays a prominent role in reinforcing the anti-choice movement, it is the anti-abortion laws set by the state and reinforced by women’s role in the family that are the root cause.
For Orr, women’s bodies are battlegrounds for the capitalist class. Everything, from the way women dress, the shape of their bodies, to their fertility is controlled and profited from.
Class is key. In the mainstream media, working class women who have children and receive benefits are often described as “scroungers”, while rich women who have children and employ a nanny when they are at work are “heroes”.
Orr argues that the fight for abortion rights has to be for a woman’s right to choose, for complete decriminalisation and free, safe abortion on demand. Control of fertility is central to any fight for women’s liberation.
The book is followed by 14 “Voices from the frontline” — testimonies from women who had back street abortions before 1967, abortion providers in the US and Ireland today, and abortion rights activists.
These give a glimpse into the courageous lives of those standing up and fighting for abortion rights.
Ultimately, for Orr, it is the class struggle against the system that produces poverty, inequality, oppression and bigotry — that can pave the way for a society that sees women’s complete liberation.
Abortion Wars needs to be in the hands of anyone committed to the fight for women’s liberation. There is no doubt it will resonate in the activity and struggle of its readers.
Abortion Wars, by Judith Orr. Published by Policy Press, £12.99
•Abortion Rights is holding a conference to celebrate the 50th birthday of the 1967 Abortion Act. Beyond the Backstreet, Saturday 28 October, central London. Go to: abortionrights.org.uk