Women have always tried to control their fertility by whatever means possible including illegal, often dangerous terminations writes Jane Kelly. Mike Leigh’s film Vera Drake showed what this was like in many working class communities in the 1950s, while for those with enough money safer procedures were always available. Until the introduction of the contraceptive pill in the UK in 1961 and the 1967 Abortion Act ordinary women faced difficult choices in relation to having children.
Even after the introduction of the pill, doctors often refused to prescribe it unless you could prove you were married (or possibly ‘engaged’). Women were left with the choice of abstinence, lying about your marital status, or relying on back-street abortions. I remember in 1963 accompanying a friend from university to a Harley Street doctor who, unconvinced of her story (and after he had collected his fee) refused to sign for her termination.
It is of course no coincidence that the pill and the Act arrived in the 1960s. In post-war Britain, women were increasingly entering higher education and the workforce for, despite immigration from the Caribbean and later the Indian sub-continent, to fill jobs in transport, health and factories, capital needed more women in the workforce. The one thing needed to facilitate this development was fertility control. As women became better educated they too demanded more control over fertility and the women’s liberation movement demanded these rights.
Choice wasn’t the first slogan that women in the Women’s Liberation Movement used when demanding the right to abortion. Initially it had been ‘Free abortion on demand’ until a group of black women pointed out that for them abortion was all too easily available – what they wanted was choice in whether, when and how to have children. So ‘choice’ became the unifying demand and has remained so ever since.
Nor is choice simply a demand put by the left; right-wingers in the Tory Party have often had a similar position. For example Theresa Gorman, a Tory of the libertarian right often ‘graced’ the platform of National Abortion Campaign platforms. Today, Amber Rudd, Tory MP says, ‘I am unequivocally pro-choice. Women who want abortions know what they’re doing. They’re grownups. The correct debate we should be having is how to improve contraception. It’s about prevention.’
While abortion, has always been a contentious issue, without a final safeguard against unwanted pregnancy women are not wholly in control of their lives. When contraception fails, or a woman doesn’t realise she is pregnant for example during the menopause or because a young woman can’t deal with the idea, legal termination has to be available.
Ever since the 1967 Act was passed, anti-abortionists have tried to get the time limit reduced. Originally it was 28 weeks, reduced to 24 in 1990 except in cases where it was necessary to save the life of the woman, there was evidence of extreme foetal abnormality, or there was a grave risk of physical or mental injury to the woman.
In the 1970s and 1980s women used to carry banners on demonstrations in favour of the right to choose saying: ‘Not the church, not the state, women must decide their fate.’ Now we have Mehdi Hasan, writing in the New Statesman, arguing that choice is, ‘selfishness and unbridled individualism.’ ‘Being pro-life doesn’t make me any less of a lefty’, New Statesman, 11 October 2012.What on earth has happened that a supposed left-winger, albeit in the Labour Party, can say such things?
At the same time we have anti-abortion, ‘right to life’ demonstrations in Belfast in the north of Ireland opposing the opening of a first private clinic by Marie Stopes International offering abortion, but within the strict guidelines of the law: that is women can only get terminations up to 9 weeks gestation if their life or mental health is at serious risk. It is probably news to some, that the north of Ireland, despite being within the UK, has different laws on this and has never been under the 1967 Act. Nine weeks is an almost impossibly short time for women to arrange appointments to request a termination. Many women, both young and old, do not even know they are pregnant until they have missed two periods, giving them one week to convince doctors that their life is at risk and to arrange the termination. Even so, it appears that no mainstream party in the north of Ireland is pro-choice. This leads to many women coming to London to resolve an unwanted pregnancy. No doubt too, illegal abortions are also attempted leading to serious injuries and even death.
Recent statements by Iain Duncan Smith, Work and Pensions minister expose some of the contradictions in government policies. He is arguing that people who have no work should have their benefits cut if they have more than two children. Perhaps he hasn’t thought this through! Quite apart from the inhumanity of his policies targeting people with hardly enough money to survive, he may have missed the fact that some Tory MPs are calling for a reduction in the time limit for abortion – Jeremy Hunt at nine weeks, others at twenty weeks – which will mean accidental pregnancies will be more difficult to terminate. But no problem for this government – it’s actually not about dealing with the deficit or helping the unemployed into work. No, it’s about attacking the welfare state, privatising as much of it as possible so that their friends can make as much money as possible – as well as the rich having as many children as they like.