Fight for a woman’s right to choose
Hypocrisy is not the word for it! The Guardian reported that Tory leader David Cameron pledged to give a third of jobs in his first government to women in order to ensure female politicians are not mere ’window dressing’ but can influence decisions affecting women’s lives.
But earlier in the week he said he would support calls for a reduction in the abortion time limit. Those who seek late abortions are among the most vulnerable and any reduction in the time limit would put their mental or physical well-being at risk. But we shouldn’t be surprised.
Fundamentally many Tories and church leaders, and the anti-abortion groups such as SPUC (Society for the Protection of Unborn Children) would like to see the right to legal abortions removed. Last October an NOP poll showed that a majority of people in Britain (83%) support a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion. Most anti-abortion groups do not, therefore, feel confident to publicly call for the abolition of all abortion rights at this stage.
Instead attacks are made on the time limit and on abortions in the case of foetal abnormality, for which there is no time limit, in an attempt to erode rights and to build up a stigma about terminations.
Prior to the 1967 Act abortions had to be paid for at private clinics. This meant that thousands of mainly working-class women, who could not afford to pay, were condemned to dangerous back-street terminations.
A doctor working in Lewisham in 1956 described what this meant: "every night three or four women would be admitted with botched abortions. They would be haemorrhaging, suffering from immense loss of blood; if they left it too long they could have become infected or gone septic and sometimes there was kidney failure".
Millions of women around the world have no access to legal free and safe abortion. This does not mean that terminations do not take place. Every year 19 million women risk their health and lives to undergo unsafe abortions.
According to the International Planned Parenthood Federation, complications from unsafe abortions are responsible for 70,000 deaths each year and studies show that up to 80% of women who have unsafe abortions suffer illness, injury or disability as a result.
The 1967 Act was an enormous improvement on the previous situation in Britain but is certainly not enough. Contrary to the way it is portrayed, the 1967 Abortion Act did not legalise abortion on demand. The Act does not apply to Northern Ireland, where women have to travel to Britain.
While it is estimated that one in five British doctors does not believe abortion should be legal, a woman must get two doctors’ signatures and then begin negotiating the cut and privatised NHS. 27% of Primary Care Trusts delay women longer than 21 days. The government’s own Science and Technology committee recommends that the requirement for two doctors’ signatures be removed.
A genuine choice
Crucially the 1967 Act introduced access to abortion on grounds other than serious risk to the mother’s health or life. The choice about when and whether to have children does not come down to the question of abortion rights or services.
For many women the choice is influenced by their financial and housing situation, access to childcare, questions of domestic violence, mental and physical health and other personal issues. Women should not be forced to go through nine months of pregnancy and a lifetime of motherhood. Many of those who seek abortions will have or have had children but this must be a choice.
Earlier this year Baroness Masham of Ilton tabled an amendment attacking abortion on grounds of foetal abnormality. The law currently allows for late abortion (after 24 weeks) if tests suggest that the baby will be seriously disabled. The results of many of these tests, such as amniocentesis, are not available until 18-20 weeks.
The motion fell but if passed into law, this amendment would have had a devastating impact for the small proportion of women who need to use this clause.
During the debate, Baroness Masham said: "I can think of no greater affront to equal opportunities for those who are disabled than the denial of the right to life itself." But this amendment would in no way advance the rights of disabled people. Every woman should have the right to decide whether to continue with her pregnancy including being able to rely on adequate public services and support.
The Socialist Party campaigns for the right to a minimum income for carers and disabled people that reflects the real cost of living and for accessible public transport and properly funded social services.
Ann Widdecombe, a prominent Tory anti-abortion campaigner, is known to oppose financial help from the state for older carers who have passed retirement age. Their hypocrisy knows no bounds! Socialist Party members stood side by side with workers with disabilities fighting against closure of the Remploy factories.
No reduction to time limit
The 1967 Act set a time limit of 28 weeks. This was reduced to 24 weeks in 1990 and Cameron and Co now seek to reduce it further. In practice it already means 22 weeks as doctors often allow a two-week margin of error. Emotive propaganda in the form of 4D imaging has been used by anti-abortion campaigners. They cite new developments in medicine that increase the viability of foetuses at 24 weeks.
Unfortunately this has been shown to be on very shaky ground scientifically. In fact the Science and Technology Committee said of those working in perinatal care that "in general, [they] do not believe that survival for babies born below 24 weeks of gestation has improved to such an extent that they would see any value in redefining the lower limit of viability".
In fact 99% of abortions take place before 20 weeks. No woman wishes to have a late abortion. There are greater health risks associated with late abortions. Women who present late for abortion are generally in the most difficult circumstances. In many cases they are the most vulnerable; those with mental health problems or learning disabilities and victims of incest or domestic violence.
Some women present late because they did not know they were pregnant. They may be menopausal, having irregular periods anyway or regular ’bleeds’ with no obvious signs of pregnancy. They may have a contraceptive device fitted or be on the contraceptive pill, but as Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee says: "The pill is only 99% effective and since 3.5 million women take it, at least 35,000 efficient pill-users will get pregnant accidentally every year."
The portrayal of women in the media contributes to an environment in which young women feel increasingly under pressure to be sexual at an ever younger age without the necessary support and advice. Teenagers are among those who seek late abortions who can be too scared to speak to anyone or do not realise they are pregnant.
The Netherlands has the world’s lowest abortion rate. The author and Guardian columnist George Monbiot recently cited a Unicef report which noted that a sharp reduction in unwanted teenage pregnancies was caused by "the combination of a relatively inclusive society with more open attitudes towards sex and sex education, including contraception".
If David Cameron was actually concerned about women’s health and well-being and serious about wanting to reduce the numbers of late abortions he should campaign for improving sex education for all young people and for a more open attitude to sex. Chance would be a fine thing.
For the Tories, like the other parties of big business, there cannot be little enough money spent on public services. They blame individuals for being ’irresponsible’. The real irresponsibility lies with the politicians and the fat cats whose interests they protect.
Nearly a third of the UK’s largest businesses paid no corporation tax in the year 2005-6 according to a Guardian report, estimating that Tesco, for example, paid a tax rate of just over 20%, 10% below the grossly inadequate UK corporate tax rate. Better access to free contraception, investment in family planning facilities, research into improved contraceptives and information campaigns are needed.
Legal rights alone are insufficient. Gordon Brown has said that he will be guided by science and sees no case for reducing the time limit. However New Labour’s policies of NHS privatisation will clearly make it more difficult for women to access abortion services.
The 1967 Act made no provision for increased NHS funding and women face the problem of whether their health authority will fund an abortion. NHS statistics show that only 86% of abortions are funded by the NHS in Wales and that 26% of women in England have to pay privately for their abortion.
St John’s and St Elizabeth’s Hospital in North London gives a glimpse of the effect privatised health care will have on women’s needs. George Monbiot points out that although it is partly funded by the NHS, this is "a Catholic hospital, which forbids doctors from prescribing contraceptives or referring women for abortions". New Labour, with privately run, unaccountable PFI and private health schemes, is no friend to women.
A woman’s right to choose when and whether to have children is a class issue. Prior to the 1967 Act the rich could afford to pay for abortions. In countries like southern Ireland, where abortion is not legal, rich women can pay to travel. Whether or not to continue with a pregnancy should be a personal choice made by women.
But a genuine choice is only possible where abortion is free, on demand and safe and the resources and support are available to bring up a child. At present these aspects of a woman’s right to choose are not readily available to all women.
Every year about a thousand women in the UK take legal action claiming they were sacked because they became pregnant. Last year there were 200,000 more children living in poverty in the UK than the year before. The government was meant to be halving child poverty by 2010.
A Unicef report put British children at the bottom of a league table for child well-being across 21 industrialised countries. These are issues for the working class and trade unions to take up and fight on.
We cannot wait for any of the politicians from the main pro-business parties to defend our rights, let alone to fight for more. Some so-called pro-choice MPs and peers have said that stirring the abortion debate could open a pandora’s box and risk erosion of existing rights.
If these MPs cared more about women’s lives and health than about retaining their seat and all the perks of the job, they would be tabling amendments on ending the two-signature law, on pumping money into all aspects of the health service - abortion services, fertility treatment, maternity and midwifery services and making sure that all of it is free and publicly run. They would campaign, as the Socialist Party does, for childcare to be available to all, for equal pay for women and a living minimum wage, not one that condemns millions of women to poverty.
The pro-business, anti-working class policies of all three main political parties make life much harder for women and impact enormously on the choices available to them. The Socialist Party campaigns for a new mass workers’ party. Such a party could really challenge the so-called ’pro-lifers’. SPUC and the other anti-abortion groups have pots of cash to fund their campaigns. MPs with small majorities feel vulnerable to anti-abortion lobbies, especially among Catholic voters.
In the absence of a mass workers’ party at this stage it is crucial that the trade unions oppose any attacks on abortion rights and build for a national demonstration to demand improvements for women.
The Abortion Act was introduced as one of many reforms gained in the post-war years of economic boom. Women made up more and more of the workforce and, with improvements to their living standards, they became more confident to struggle.
They were not only successful in the struggle for abortion rights, but also for equal pay and sex discrimination legalisation. But there is still a battle to be fought. 31 years after the Equal Pay Act women in full-time work earn 17% less than men, rising to 36% for part-time workers.
Politicians often seek to distract us, using emotive campaigns on so-called ’moral issues’ in the hope of whipping up a right-wing backlash. This is currently the case in Spain, where the housing market bubble has burst and the politicians attempt to distract attention by attacking abortion rights.
To distract workers from uniting to fight back, the capitalist parties also scapegoat certain sections of society. Recently much of this has been aimed at women and families, such as Blair blaming gun and knife crime on black mothers. But the struggles starting to take place over the single-status agreement in local government show how ’divide and rule’ tactics can be overcome.
In Greenwich, where mainly male manual workers were told they must accept a pay cut to fund equal pay for mainly low-paid women workers, the Unison branch, whose branch secretary is a Socialist Party member, has conducted a marvellous battle and forced the council to guarantee no wage reductions.
The socialist alternative
The Socialist Party has a long history of fighting for women’s rights. We have campaigned against sexist advertising as well as against sexism on many university campuses. We have a proud record of campaigning against domestic violence and challenging low pay and cuts and privatisation of public services.
You can’t fully control what you don’t own. Socialism is about public ownership of the top companies and about planning production to meet need rather than profit. It is about ordinary women and men democratically making and controlling the decisions which affect our lives on a day-to-day basis.
Based on co-operation and equality, socialism would lay the basis for an end to poverty and all forms of discrimination and oppression. Only on that basis will women genuinely have the right to choose when and whether to have children.
- Free abortion on request.
- For a fully funded, democratically controlled National Health Service.
- Access to free, safe contraception including emergency contraception; a reversal of the cuts in family planning services and a massive investment into sympathetic youth advisory centres.
- Improved sex education in schools.
- Information campaigns on contraception.
- Access to free fertility treatment on the NHS for all those who need it.
- Public ownership of the pharmaceutical industry.
- A minimum wage of £8 an hour; a minimum income linked to the minimum wage and a 35-hour working week with no loss of pay.
- A network of publicly funded, good quality, flexible childcare facilities.
- Maternity and child benefit to reflect the real cost of pregnancy, childbirth and bringing up a child.
- A massive increase in spending on housing, education and other public services.
- Adequate facilities and services for women who are experiencing domestic violence.
- An end to discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, sexuality, disability and all forms of prejudice.
- A democratically run socialist society, planned to meet social needs rather than the profits of a few.