The fight for women’s right to control our own fertility is absolutely central to the fight for women’s liberation, and needs to be actively supported by all socialists. Without the right to control our bodies, we can have no chance of taking control of our lives.
It is no accident, therefore, that the second wave of feminism in the United States and Western Europe in the 1960s developed at the same time as the introduction of the contraceptive pill – as well as the growth of women’s access to higher education. And within that overall fight to determine what we do with our bodies, it is the right to abortion that has always been at the cutting edge. In Britain, there was an attempt by Victoria Gillick in the 1980’s to prevent young women being prescribed or given advice about to contraception until they were 16.
There have been important battles over LGBT rights, from the fight for positive images to be available to today’s focus on the fight against homophobic bullying in schools. The rate of suicide amongst young people who are lesbian or gay or who are targeted by homophobes whatever their sexuality is a constant reminder that the fight for control of our bodies is far from won. However, it has been over the right to abortion that the sharpest battles have been fought.
A procession of private members bills from James White in 1975, through Benyon in 1997, John Corrie in 1979 to David Alton in 1987 have tried to restrict women’s rights, focusing particularly on the question of late abortions. The James White bill led to the formation of the National Abortion campaign (NAC). While NAC fought with others to defend the existing law, it always raised its own slogan of “Free Abortion on demand” in a prominent way.By the time of the Corrie bill in 1979 the movement for a woman’s right to choose had built up such support, including at the base of the trade unions, that it was possible to get the Trade Union Congress to call a major demonstration in opposition to Corrie’s proposals in October 1979.This huge march of 50,000 people was a historic moment in the fight for women’s liberation.
Many people would have marched against the Corrie Bill anyway but certainly the campaign was able to reach a whole layer of working class women that we probably would not have reached without TUC support. And of course official backing gave a small organisation access to material resources that would otherwise have been way beyond our means. The movement that developed in those four years in particular was led by women but also involved men, especially in major actions.
Socialist feminists were at the centre of the campaign and were the ones who successfully fought for the orientation to the trade unions. Supporters of the Fourth International in Britain, then in the International Socialist Group were involved in the foundation of and leadership of the National Abortion Campaign. Over the last few weeks and months we have begun to see an important rebirth of the pro-choice movement bringing together women and men who were part of the campaigns of the 1970s and 80s with a new generation of women and men, primarily active in the student movement.
The 400 plus strong picket of anti-abortionist Anne Widdecombe’s road show at Central Hall Westminster on 6 February was emblematic of that new movement bringing together old and young and with both trade union and student banners. There was a mixture of slogans too – the old cries of “our bodies, our lives, our right to decide” was accompanied by “pro-life? – that’s a lie – you stand by while women die”.
The London picket has not been the only response to the new round of attacks we are seeing on women’s fertility rights – there have also been lively protests in Glasgow, Coventry and Liverpool challenging the anti-abortionists’ lies and distortions. The reality is, as many were reminded in Mike Leigh’s powerful film Vera Drake, that women always have had and always will have abortions. The issue is whether we are able to do so safely and freely. Katy Clarke MP gave the statistics the packed meeting of over 300 on January 16 – 20 million abortions happened last year in countries where abortion is illegal – and 80,000 women died. Abortion Rights, as the campaign became in 2003 (following a merger between NAC and the more moderate Abortion Law reform Association (ALRA), also held an action on International Women’s Day in London highlighting that 83 per cent of people in Britain support a woman’s right to choose.
The context for this new round of activity is that Parliament is currently debating the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, which the anti-abortionists are using as a platform to attack women’s abortion rights – particularly by restricting how late women can have an abortion. Indeed the lowering of the time limits from 28 weeks as set out in the 1967 Act to the current 24 weeks actually took place as a result of an amendment moved to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in 1990. Today the reactionaries, particularly in the shape of the Catholic Church which provides material resources as well as the people through organisations such as SPUC (Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child) and Life, are mobilising around the Bill more generally as the idea of assisted reproduction upsets many of their notions about what women’s place is in society – or more to the point the family.
However it is on abortion and particularly the question of late abortion that they are concentrating their fire. This is of course hypocritical of them because those that are driving their campaign believe all abortion is wrong – but they know that they have no chance of winning this. No woman wants to have a late abortion.
But the reasons why late abortions happen are many – and in the end it needs to be our right to decide. The best way to reduce the number of late abortions is to extend women’s abortion rights. That is why some pro-choice MPs are looking to use the parliamentary debate to introduce amendments which will extend the existing Act in a number of ways – for example by removing the paternalistic need to get two doctors signatures before a woman can get an abortion. There seem to be some tensions within Abortion Rights about this and other issues. Of course there are may be some people that will defend the existing law but will not support its extension. Of course it is vital that we beat back any attempt to lower the time limits as our number one priority over the months ahead. However the National Abortion campaign, and most pro-choice campaigners have had a position of wanting to improve on the 1967 Act for decades. The reality is that the times when we have been strongest have been when we are mobilising against attacks from those who have sought to restrict our rights still further.
It seems that we are likely to be in a better position to go on the offensive at a time when we are also resisting attacks. It is healthy that given these and other debates within the campaign which have led to both staffing changes and resignations from the management committee there has been a decision to call an emergency general meeting of the campaign at the beginning of April. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology bill had its third reading in the House of Lords on February 4 and will then come back to the House of Commons in the weeks ahead– although it has not as yet been precisely timetabled.
The House of Lords defeated an amendment from Baroness Marsham to the Bill which would have removed the right of women to have an abortion on the grounds of severe foetal abnormality both before and after 24 weeks. Less than 2 per cent of women have abortions after 24 weeks but those that do are in desperate situations. Women would have been forced for example to carry to term and go through labour with a foetus that had no brain – and therefore no chance of survival. Fortunately the amendment was overwhelmingly defeated. One of the very positive things about the new mobilisation of the pro-choice movement has been the active involvement of the disabled movement. The anti-abortionists have shamefully attempted to counterpose women’s rights against those of disabled people. The NUS Disabled Students organisation, the biggest organisation of disabled people in this country has taken a strong stand against this manoeuvre and spoke powerfully at the House of Commons meeting.
Another new context that the movement fighting for abortion rights has to grapple with today is the role of religion in contemporary British society. Obviously the growth of the anti-war movement has seen Muslims – including Muslim women – take a more prominent role in British political life than ever before. There has been an assumption by some on the radical left that these people will automatically take a reactionary position on questions such as abortion and LGBT rights.
This was presumably the basis for the SWP attacking Socialist Resistance within Respect for raising issues around LGBT rights and for arguing that the organisation should support Abortion on demand. Of course they then made a grotesque about-turn when they split Respect, both by arguing that fundamentalist forces were at work inside Respect and that they were the ones that had always championed these issues.
In her reply to the SWP, Salma Yacoob argues that in fact the general dynamic in the Muslim community in Britain is towards the left. She says: “One indication of which way the wind is blowing has been the complete absence of any serious dissent inside Respect over the kind of secular/religious fault lines that run through wider society. This includes issues such as abortion law, homosexuality, gender equality or faith-based schools.For many people these are matters of personal morality and religious belief. For that reason we would be wise to deal with them with some sensitivity.
But these issues, of course, have a wider political and social significance that we cannot ignore. In this context, an argument about the importance of the right to self-determination, freedom and equality is very powerful. I have argued on many occasions that if Muslims demand respect for their beliefs and lifestyle, then the same tolerance and respect for the rights and choices of others is obligatory”.
The National Abortion Campaign, while popularising the slogan “Free Abortion on demand” always emphasised we were a movement about choice. We obviously made clear that we were in favour of the right of women to have children and campaigned where that was under threat in particular situations e.g. the forced use of long term contraceptives and forced sterilisation meted out to some, particularly black women, not judged as “fit” mothers. It is also worth knowing that many countries with large religious communities have liberal abortion laws.
Turkey and Tunisia are a case in point in terms of majority Muslim societies. Bangladesh permits “menstrual regulation” during the first eight weeks of pregnancy. On the other hand in Indonesia, with the largest Muslim population in the world, where abortion is illegal except to save the mother’s life, up to two million women have abortions every year.
So while some of the way Salma looks at the question as a Muslim is different to the way I look at it as an atheist, a feminist and a Marxist, we are clearly on the same side. In my view what Salma says is useful in terms of debating with other people who have personal religious beliefs.
While I argue that the Catholic Church as an institution, supported to a lesser extent by other Christian denominations have been the key prop of the anti-abortion movement world wide and in Britain, this does not mean that every Christian is actively anti-choice.There are indeed some organisations such as Catholics For A Free Choice, founded in the United States in 1973 that exist in order to campaign for choice (see www.catholicsforchoice.org/). The front page of their web site includes the following statement with which I don’t see any reader of this magazine disagreeing:
”Catholic or not, the Catholic Church’s role in influencing public policy affects you through limiting the availability of reproductive health services. Help us fight back. Make a contribution today.”
It is statements like this that also makes me believe that someone I met who argued against the placards outside the Anne Widdecombe road show which said “Keep your rosaries off my ovaries” was misguided. In my experience those who are fighting religious institutions from the inside are not at all naïve about how reactionary they are.
At the 1994 International conference on Population and Development in Cairo and at the Fourth World conference on women in Beijing the following year an international coalition of religious leaders across the world’s major religions joined to support recommendations that endorsed women’s reproductive choice (see www.reproductiverights.org : Religious Voices worldwide support choice). A re-energised movement for a woman’s right to choose in the twenty first century in Britain will need to reach out to Muslim women and to women from other religious backgrounds. We should be heartened by the story that Joyce Gould told the Abortion Rights meeting in parliament.
The Catholic Church in Scotland had argued from the pulpit one Sunday that their congregation should not support a particular candidate who was very publicly pro-choice. Despite this, and the large number of Catholics in the constituency, his majority doubled! The pro-choice movement needs to build on the dynamic that we have seen exists over the last few weeks and gear up for the fight ahead. It is likely to take less than six months for the Bill to make its way through Parliament – which means the window to mobilise is quite a short one given that it is some time since the last major activities of the campaignIt will be particularly important to seriously reactivate the trade union movement on the question.
Many of the major trade unions have retained their national affiliations won by the National Abortion campaign in the 1970s and 1980’s and have transferred that to Abortion Rights. However that support needs to be transformed into active campaigning and at the same time new affiliations won at all levels of the trade union movement. On the other hand, if we are successful in defending and extending women’s rights to control our bodies, we could see the most significant growth of the women’s liberation movement that we have seen for decades – something that would strengthen and deepen the whole of the left.