Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.

More info ×

Up for a fight

The anti-choice lobby, with David Cameron at the helm, has proposed amendments to the abortion law that would target a vulnerable minority of women. Reforms are needed, but to extend rather than restrict women's reproductive freedoms, argues Laurie Penny

May 8, 2008
7 min read


Laurie PennyLaurie Penny is a freelance journalist who blogs regularly for the New Statesman.


  share     tweet  

A few weeks ago, I got dressed up in my best Rosie Riveter DMs and attack-hoodie, and went to the House of Commons. The organisers of the pro-choice meeting organised by Emily Thornberry MP had anticipated around 200 supporters. One overflow room was barely sufficient for more than double that number of outraged women and men, there to plan a crisis response to the latest anti-abortion act to be dumped on the Commons table, and in defence of the basic right to personal and political self-determination.

Cameron’s anti-choice lobbying

Abortion is not a new issue. In recent months, however, amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, championed by such anti-choice MPs as Ann Widdecombe, Nadine Dorries and, recently, David Cameron, have dragged the issue pink and screaming back into the public glare.

Abortion has been legal in the UK (apart from Northern Ireland) for 40 years, a policy that is supported by a majority of the population. In a recent NOP poll, 83 per cent of British citizens agreed with the statement, ‘A woman should be able to decide to have an abortion.’ But the anniversary of the 1967 Abortion Act prompted multiple calls for a re-evaluation of the national policy on pregnancy termination. The act has not been amended since 1990, when the legal time limit on abortion was reduced from 26 to 24 weeks. The anti-choice lobby continues to be adamant that ‘scientific advances’, which can, in rare cases, help babies born before 24 weeks of gestation survive more than a few minutes, should warrant a further reduction in the time limit on legal termination of pregnancy.

Conservative leader David Cameron has come out in support of a reduction in the time limit. He says that, ‘If there is an opportunity in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, I will be voting to bring this limit down from 24 weeks.’ The government has responded by declaring ‘no plans to change the law on abortion’. Since the English Abortion Act was last amended 18 years ago, politicians on both sides of the argument have fought to keep the issue out of party politics, and it’s easy to see why: the issue is a complex one _that polarises debate and confers advantage on no political party. Now, Brown and Cameron have overturned political precedent and nailed their colours to the mast, although there is still no party line on the bill, which remains a conscience vote.

It is darkly pleasing that the Tory leader has finally outed himself as anti-woman. Cameron, along with Conservative supporters and such anti-choice groups as the Christian Medical Foundation (CMF), has leapt on the tenuous and emotive issue of foetal viability and recklessly jeopardised the reproductive freedoms of all British women in the process. In the UK, only 1 per cent of abortions are carried out after 22 weeks (the legal time limit is 24 weeks). Those who do seek terminations after this time are often the most vulnerable of women – young girls, women who did not know they were pregnant and non-English speakers. Cameron and the anti-choice campaigners for whom he has become a spokesman are targeting a vulnerable minority of women in pursuit of a moral agenda.

Feminists fight back

In response, there have been protests across the country against the anti-choice lobby’s amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. As demonstrated in the Commons at the pro-choice rally, there are more of us than Whitehall initially anticipated, and we are, as an SWP women’s representative declared, ‘up for a fight’.

Laura Schwartz, the founder of pro-choice group Feminist Fightback, says that: ‘Hard won reproductive freedoms for which previous generations of women have fought are currently facing serious threat. Anti-choice campaigners are using the issue of the time limit to launch their attack on all our reproductive rights. Restricting late abortions will be an initial step towards further limitation of access to our vitally important right to terminate pregnancy legally.’ Feminist Fightback supports translucent proposals in parliament to increase access to terminations early on in a pregnancy; but, says core member Rebecca Galbraith, ‘these should not be passed at the cost of restrictions on the time limit’.

This is a fight not only to defend but to extend every woman’s right to reproductive freedom. Indeed, the terms of the 1967 Abortion Act are, on paper at least, among the most restrictive in the western world.

Anne Quesney, director of Abortion Rights UK, comments: ‘Forty years of safe, legal abortion in Britain is something to celebrate. But the majority of the public clearly feels that the legislation is now out of date. It is time for a law that trusts women to make the abortion decision and remove the need for two doctors’ permission to access the procedure – a process that can lead to delays for women at a difficult time.’

Extending reproductive freedom

It is vital to interrogate the much-repeated liberal fallback position, as repeated by Diane Abbott MP at the recent Commons rally, that ‘every abortion is a tragedy’. Why is every abortion a tragedy? It must be understood, after all, that foeticide is not equivalent to murder; abortion is the termination of a human life in the process of forming, not termination of that life itself. To hold otherwise is illogical misogyny, predicated on a social paradigm that fears female reproductive power.

Implicit in the theory that life begins at conception is the idea that the male sperm is what brings about new human life. Life itself becomes contingent upon the entry of the male gamete into the woman, who is seen as no more than a potting tray, a patch of bare soil where the male seed might grow. She has no agency, she has no autonomy, and to act with any is a heinous, possibly criminal, act if she decides that she doesn’t want to play the compliant potting-box anymore.

To insist, conversely, that women have a say (indeed, the final say) in life-formation and life-creation throughout their own pregnancies and beyond is to acknowledge something unthinkable: that women wield the power to create life – a terrifying, world-destroying, frightening power. Acknowledgement of this level of female power is unfathomable in most patriarchal societies, and so the balance is shifted to demonise and criminalise women’s exercise of that power.

The importance of the pro-choice movement to women’s rights can only be understood once it is acknowledged that abortion is not just personal: it’s political as well. The right to reproductive freedom is a political right, because reproductive potential is also political potential. In a world without flawless contraception, access to safe, legal pregnancy termination is a necessary part of sexual and reproductive healthcare. If the amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill 2008 were to be passed, it would a dangerous step towards the complete negation of a woman’s right to control her own reproductive capability: stripping the female citizen of her right to control her own personal and political potential, denying her sexual choices and reproductive self-determination.

There is an urgent need for a progressive re-evaluation of reproductive rights in the UK, bringing an end to the evasive, vacillating conservatism in the extant legal provision. Eight decades after we won full voting rights in 1928, our full political emancipation is long overdue.

www.feministfightback.org.uk, www.abortionrights.org.uk

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Laurie PennyLaurie Penny is a freelance journalist who blogs regularly for the New Statesman.


Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency