On Tuesday 20 May MPs will debate and vote on anti-choice amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. The Bill includes such things as provision for research on different types of embryos. It is being used to attack abortion rights, to cut the current 24 week time limit to 20 or even 13 weeks! The fight against these attacks needs to be seen as central to women’s liberation and class struggle.
Since 1967, when women won limited abortion rights, we have had to constantly defend them. The campaign against the Alton Bill is an interesting comparison to our current fight.
In 1987 David Alton put a one line amendment reducing the abortion time limit to 18 weeks. By focussing on the time limit he sought, what he thought was a weak spot in the shield of the pro-choice movement. But in response to his amendment there was mass mobilisation. In nearly every town in Britain a FAB (Fight Alton’s Bill) group was formed; in colleges and hospitals students and nurses set up their own campaigns, Women Against Pit Closures sponsored the national campaign and the TUC co-sponsored FAB’s 19 March demonstration. Those involved believed that the campaign had to be built on the basis of mass action — street petitioning, meetings, pickets, local marches, national demonstrations.
The current campaign, run by Abortion Rights, has focussed on lobbying MPs (only defensively) and holding meetings in Parliament. They have organised a protest on 20 May, which we should support, but this is the first demonstration and it takes place on the day of the vote itself.
Taking to the streets demonstrates that politics is not just about what happens in the Houses of Parliament, it is about the fight of the working class and the oppressed for their demands.
The 1967 Act is outdated and was always based on the idea that women are unable to make valid decisions for themselves — it is time they stopped treating us like fools who don’t know our own minds! Women should be able to get an abortion without having to get the consent of any, let alone two doctors. The two doctor’s signature rule simply causes unnecessary delays.
Despite the fact that on 29 October the Commons Science and Technology Committee recommended liberalising the 1967 Act by upholding the 24 week time limit, removing the two doctor jury and allowing nurses to perform first trimester abortions, it is expected that no pro-choice amendments will be put forward. If this remains the case then a real and vital opportunity for liberalisation will have been lost.
The arguments for a reduction have focussed on foetal viability and the claims of pro-lifers that it has improved. Let’s get this straight, it hasn’t! Survival rates (viability) below 24 weeks gestation have not improved since 1990. But viability is not the point, and making our arguments on these terms is dangerous. If medical advancements meant, for instance, that a foetus was viable at 16 weeks our position should not change. Given the choice women would always choose to have an early abortion and those who seek later abortions are likely to be the most vulnerable. Whether the foetus is viable or not, it is still dependent on a woman, inside her and affecting her life.
We need to move away from fighting on the basis of viability and to put a woman’s right to choose firmly back into the centre of the struggle for women’s equality and liberation, and to ask why control of women’s reproductive systems has been so crucial to regimes of power. To deny a woman choice is to deny her autonomy and control over her own life; women have the most to gain and most to lose from the struggle for abortion rights and it is women who should lead the campaign.
The campaigning I have been involved in over the past months, through Feminist Fightback, has also shown me that we need to create a better space to talk about the emotions involved in abortion. At the moment only the anti-choicers talk about how difficult abortion can be, leaving those women who may feel absolutely fine after an abortion worrying that their reaction is not normal, and those women who feel frightened about abortion afraid to voice concerns in pro-choice groups.
The fight for reproductive freedom affects working-class women with particular sharpness. Abortion is a class issue; rich women will always be able to go abroad or get safe, illegal abortions here. It is working class women who will be forced to return to back street abortions. It is working class women, now, in Northern Ireland who are forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy until they can get the money to go private or travel to England. It is poorer, less educated and migrant women who are likely to be denied their rights by the two doctor requirement and who are most affected by the government’s dismembering of the NHS and welfare state, and the absence of decent childcare provision.
What now? Feminist Fightback, jointly with Left Women’s Network and supported by pro-choice trade unionists and student activists, have written a briefing for MPs urging them to put forward pro-choice amendments. This can be downloaded from www.feministfightback.org.uk and sent to your MP.
Over the past few months we have organised pickets, demonstrations, a teach-in and leafleting. We will continue to do this and to make demands for reproductive rights stronger and more militant.
We call on trade unions to get involved. In 1979, as a result of mass campaigning for abortion rights, the trade unions called a national demonstration against the Corrie Bill. This was attended by 60,000 people.
That is the tradition that we want to stand in. Feminist Fightback intends to establish a network that exits specifically to organise pro-choice activity in the labour movement and from a working class perspective. We also believe that Abortion Rights should adopt this perspective.
The right of women to control their reproductive freedom is in the interest of the whole of the working class. True reproductive freedom for all women will only come with profound changes in society that affect the totality of women’s lives; this is what we are fighting for.