I've been a Labour member and activist for around a decade, and one of the most common refrains I've heard on the doors over the years is that politicians can't be trusted: all the parties are the same, you couldn't get a cigarette paper between Labour and the Tories on policy, and so on. In all my time in the party, never has such an argument held less water than in this year's election. One of the starkest examples of this dichotomy is reproductive justice.
It's been 50 years since the 1967 Abortion Act, which created a strict legal framework by which abortion was permissible, was passed in England, Wales and Scotland. The Act never made it to Northern Ireland, which has some of the most regressive abortion laws in all of Europe and where abortion remains a devolved matter. Labour's manifesto made a commitment to extend the right to choose to women in Northern Ireland, in an effort to right this historic wrong. By contrast, since the election, the Tories have been trying to broker a confidence and supply agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party, an agreement in which the former Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson suggested could see a debate on abortion limits for the rest of the UK. Where Labour were proposing a monumental step forward, the Tories were suggesting an enormous one back. For all the alarm bells justifiably ringing here, it’s only part of the story - the Tories’ undermining of women's bodily autonomy goes much further than this.
Theresa May calling an early General Election, whether through vanity, hubris, idiocy or a combination thereof, meant that a very important piece of legislation fell. This was the Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) bill, introduced as a Ten Minute Rule Bill by Labour MP Diana Johnson. The bill would have decriminalised abortion in England and Wales - incredibly important when, as Johnson pointed out introducing the bill:
“Under sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861 and other legislation, termination of a pregnancy carries the maximum sentence of life imprisonment. That is the harshest criminal penalty of any country in Europe, underpinned by a Victorian criminal law passed before women even had the right to vote, let alone sit in this place. The Abortion Act 1967 did not change the fundamental fact: it merely set out circumstances under which abortion could be legal”.
In order to access an abortion legally, two registered medical practitioners need to sign in good faith to certify that the pregnancy would involve greater risk to the mental and physical wellbeing of the pregnant woman than a termination, or that the risk to the foetus is such that it would be ‘seriously handicapped’ if born. It all sounds straightforward enough until you try to get one, and find out your GP is a devout Catholic who won’t even countenance the idea of signing let alone signposting you to someone who will (speaking from experience here), for example.
It sounds straightforward enough until you consider the women in controlling domestic situations (whether it is a spouse or another family member) who would not be able to access the service confidentially and safely; women in precarious employment for whom the time off for all the necessary appointments to get an abortion might lose them their job, or see them “zeroed down”; women living in rural areas where there is no provision locally to allow them to have the procedure within a practical travelling distance. The law says that anyone stepping outside of the framework established in the 1967 act is a criminal, however legitimate their reasons - something unconscionable in 2017.
This bill, which passed by 172 votes to 142 votes, was due its second reading on May 12th. Parliament was dissolved nine days earlier. Sadly, the bill was not considered important enough or was too early in its passage through the legislature to be hurried through during the “wash up” which meant it has been scrapped. One of the only small consolations here was that one of the six Labour MPs who voted against the bill - who also happened to be Vice Chair of the ‘Pro-Life’ All Party Parliamentary Group - lost his seat this election. The Chair of that group, Conservative Fiona Bruce MP, sadly remains in post, albeit with a 5.5% swing against her.
The reason the bill only covered England and Wales was that the Tories made the decision to amend the Scotland Act 2016 to devolve abortion law to Scotland. Scotland currently has large geographical variation in service provision across health boards with women having to travel outside of Scotland every year to access the support they need, particularly after 12 weeks’ gestation. The patchwork of provision that exists across the UK risks becoming an ever-deepening divide as a result, when what is clearly needed is a nationwide approach that is humane, and which trusts women to make the right decision for themselves and their circumstances.
Furthermore, this month, the news of the High Court appeal for Northern Irish women to be able to access abortion services on the NHS in England was rejected. During proceedings, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt conceded that he had the power to make provisions for Northern Ireland residents to access free NHS abortions in England. His government have chosen not to: a choice that pushes women in Northern Ireland into ever more desperate circumstances. As the British Pregnancy Advisory Service’s chief executive Ann Furedi said:
"NHS-funded abortion care may not have been declared a legal right for Northern Irish women today, but it is morally right to provide it."
With their DUP partners in tow, this looks even further away now.
Reproductive justice is one of the starkest issues facing young women today, with young women making up the majority of those who present for abortion, and the highest abortion rate being among women aged 20-24. It is also an issue which cuts across all communities: disabled women; refugee, migrant and asylum-seeking women; women from Black and Minority Ethnic communities, and LGBTQ+ people. We desperately need a government that will decriminalise abortion, support mandatory comprehensive sex and relationship education (SRE) in schools, and invest in reproductive health care, to ensure that the right to choose is a right which is tangible rather than merely hypothetical.
This government has already shown that they’re not up to that job. What these examples show, along the litany of bills submitted over the years by the likes of Nadine Dorries MP to try to restrict abortion access by the backdoor, is the uphill struggle that those who care about the right to choose have on their hands as this government clings to power, and how important it is for reproductive justice in this country that a Labour government is returned at the earliest opportunity.
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