Abortion: old war, new battles

Comedian Kate Smurthwaite explains why we must continue to fight for a woman's right to choose.

October 28, 2013
4 min read

PicBBCA woman’s right to choose on abortion is a fundamental one, yet many people regard the battle for legal abortion in Britain as akin to the moon landings – something we ticked off in the sixties and don’t need to revisit.

The reality is that our abortion law, little changed since the days of Mary Quant and Beatlemania, was never truly fit for purpose. Most glaringly abortion is still essentially illegal in Northern Ireland and today an average of forty women a week travel to other parts of the UK to terminate pregnancies.

The price war on flights from Belfast has made these women’s lives easier, but in London or Liverpool, ‘National’ Health Service facilities charge them £600 to £2,000 for abortions that would be free to other British women. The law change would need to come from Stormont but the costs for Northern Irish women on the mainland is a regulatory one. The Department of Health simply refuses to budge. When women in crisis pregnancy are more grateful to Michael O’Leary than they are to Jeremy Hunt, it’s time to get a new Health Secretary.

Abortion before twelve weeks is usually achieved with two sets of tablets taken 48 hours apart. Current regulations, not laws, mean the second set of tablets must be administered on a separate visit to a medical clinic, rather than simply handed out with the first set and instructions. Two to four hours after taking this second set of tablets a normal miscarriage occurs and, thanks to this genius piece of regulation, rather than at home where they feel safe and comfortable women are likely to miscarry in clinic toilets, public transport or the motorway hard shoulder.

Abortion also remains the only medical procedure which requires two doctor’s signatures. You can have a brain transplant with one. Some of these anti-choice politicians should consider it.

However, instead of working to solve these glaring problems politicians are distracted by a new breed of evangelical, in every sense, anti-choice campaigners armed with tactics copied from their US counterparts.

The fundamentalist part of the anti-choice movement now stands outside Marie Stopes and BPAS clinics conspicuously praying or holding up graphic images of abortions which, like all medical procedures, look gross. Those of us who support a woman’s right to choose abortion rarely stand outside maternity wards with pictures of placentas.

The ‘moderate’ end of the anti-choice movement prefers to derail the agenda in subtler ways, exaggerating and bewailing the notion of terminations based on the gender or disability of the foetus. This misleads because it shifts the focus to the foetus. The woman herself has evaporated.

However much humanity and however many rights we afford an unborn foetus, the right to use another person’s body to sustain one’s own life is not on any international declarations. If it was organ donation would be compulsory and vampire films would get very dull as the ubiquitous virgins rolled over and muttered ‘well I suppose you do look thirsty…’.

Pro-choice campaigners can become complicit in this derailment when they invoke rape and incest cases to highlight the importance of abortion rights. Yes, those cases have a particular poignancy but the same logic is used to suggest HIV treatment be made available at first to those who contracted the disease through blood transfusion rather than intercourse. Consenting to sex should not diminish basic human rights.

Whatever religious extremists would like to tell us, in our society it is not illegal for women and men, gay or straight, to have consensual, recreational sex. What is wrong is to punish women who participate by forcing them to carry and raise an unwanted child, not least because the burden of suffering inevitably falls on that child.

The battle for a woman’s right to choose is far from won in the UK. We must continue to fight it: from discriminatory laws and clumsy regulations to street harassment and the sickening notion, thoughtlessly accepted in much public discourse, that pregnancy and parenthood can function as a penalty for sexually active women.

Kate Smurthwaite is a comedian and political activist www.katesmurthwaite.co.uk


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