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