By Charlie Calam
Reproductive rights in Britain are very vulnerable to attack. Almost forty years since the 1967 Abortion Act women still have to cast doubt on their own mental health to be allowed to have an abortion. This is not the right to choose.
Our ‘right’ to an abortion depends upon convincing two doctors that having a child is not in our best interests mentally or physically. The requirement for the consent of two doctors may be a formality for well-off, well-connected women, but it represents a major barrier for many poorer and less confident women, to say nothing of those who do not speak English.
At the same time, these formal barriers are not the only things denying women their rights. The postcode lottery of NHS funding means that the availability of free, publicly-funded abortion is extremely limited in many, mostly poorer parts of the country - and this problem will be exacerbated by the accelerating drive towards fragmentation and privatisation which the New Labour government is implementing in the health service.
There are also parliamentary attempts to restrict abortion rights. During the 2005 election campaign, the leaders of all three main parties supported a reduction in abortion time limits. When standing for the leadership of the Tory party, MP Liam Fox felt confident enough in the anti-choice consensus to advocate a reduction to 12 weeks. Tory MP Nadine Dorries introduced the recent Ten Minute Rule Bill calling for a reduction in the time limit from 24 to 21 weeks, and compulsory counselling as well as a mandatory “cooling off period” after the initial consultation, effectively further reducing time limits. The Bill was defeated in Parliament on 31 October, but by a margin of only 79 votes (108 to 187) - included in the 5 Labour MPs that voted for the bill was David Taylor of the Socialist Campaign Group. Not even half of MPs bothered to turn up.
The Parliamentary attacks don't end there. Labour MP Geraldine Smith, chair of the All Party Parliamentary “pro-life” group, has proposed an Early Day Motion calling for the government to “to consider the scientific, medical and social changes in relation to abortion that have taken place since 1967, with a view to presenting options for new legislation”. The EDM has been signed by 158 MPs, including notorious anti-abortionist Anne Widdecombe and so-called socialist George Galloway.
Although it's been suggested that a “review” of abortion legislation does not necessarily indicate a reduction in time limits, the wording of the EDM is telling — only the anti-abortion lobby refer to “medical” and “scientific” advances when deciding time limits, taking the focus far from a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body.
Meanwhile, reproductive freedom is further restricted by the poorly funded and non-compulsory sex education available in schools, by the creation of private, often religious, academies and by the cutting of local NHS services. All this undermines attempts to ensure young women get the support and information they need to control their own bodies and their own lives.
Campaigning for abortion rights is part of a more general struggle for women’s equality and liberation, and a fight for the defence and extension of public provision in order to guarantee people the services they need and end poverty.