Abortion limits should not be off limits. Existing laws must periodically be scrutinised. But we must be watchful too.
The debate is often seized by dedicated rightwingers and anti-feminists. That’s what we saw happening last week as slithery Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, baleful Maria Miller, Minister for Women and pesky Tory MP Nadine Dorries called for a reduction of the existing 24-week threshold. The Tories seemed to have spawned an undeclared, powerful US type Tea Party ( with scones).
See how “moderniser” Cameron is elbowed aside as the cabal swoops down on women’s reproductive rights. The argument, ostensibly about legal abortion, is actually about the slow but real advances made by western women towards autonomy, equality, access and freedom. What makes Hunt, Miller and Dorries so dangerous is that they don’t look or sound reactionary or crazed. Instead they come across as sensible, sympathetic to females, scientific even and, hey, two of them have wombs.
These objectors, I bet, have no qualms about bombing nations and ending countless lives that way. They also must believe that teen pregnancy rates are too high and too many young, ill-educated women with babies are on benefit, a “burden on the state” as they say. How all that is rationalised remains a mystery. Just a few points they might think about: very few foetuses are aborted at 24 weeks, and some have congenital abnormalities not picked up earlier; premature babies have serious health problems; abortions help poorer families not get poorer – and don’t get judgemental and think they are too stupid to use contraception.
I became pregnant more than once because various types of contraception failed. I had two abortions, and might have had a third had I not miscarried. The first two were when I was an impoverished, married university student. Having a child then would have led to wretched lives for all of us. The third pregnancy I discovered three months after my ex-husband had left me. I had a 10-year-old son to bring up, sudden financial insecurity and a broken heart. I look at high-tech images of foetuses and feel a sense of loss and a little guilt. But I know too that I had to make those choices. Any woman or girl feeling trapped by an unwanted pregnancy should be able to do the same.
You don’t always know you are pregnant – why, even Sandra Howard, wife of Tory grandee Michael Howard, confessed this weekend that in 1962, when young and married to her first husband, she only discovered her pregnancy at four months. He took off and she had the child. Some women and girls spend agonised weeks worrying about terminations, or are in denial which is why Hunt’s suggestion of a 12-week cut-off is so cruel and sexist and alarming.
Fanatical American Christian groups are spreading their “truths” around the UK. To find out about their zeal and irrepressibility, read Kathryn Joyce’s book, Quiverful: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement. Or go search out Lila Rose, young, smart, attractive American graduate who entraps people working at abortion clinics and films them to “prove” the service is shady and immoral. If you think we are not like them, think again. British women who talk publicly about abortion get terrorised by religious nutheads and other pro-lifers. Some are from the Christian People’s Alliance which condemns sex education as “immoral”. Pro-choice clinics are targeted too – sometimes in sinister ways. Dorries has accused Marie Stopes, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and other regulated clinics of pushing women into terminations and gaining financially from the procedures, claims denied by all who matter, though not ideologues with heads full of fixations and fantasies.
And, as I said earlier, controlling women’s bodies is about a bigger and more chilling agenda. The Equalities and Human Rights Commission has lost its voice; in the recession more women are being laid off than men and the cuts disproportionately affect women. I spoke at a fancy dinner organised by women in the City a few days ago and some told me they still had to fight prejudice every day. Millions of young women have been brainwashed by the media into cultural submission, into believing they are only worth anything if they look like living sex dolls. With all these problems Hunt and co think all women should just go have babies. Dorries wants 60,000 fewer abortions a year and says nothing about the thousands who would be born into hopelessness or those truly not wanted. Do these Tories really hate women (and children) that much? I fear so.
By politicising this serious issue, these Tories have made it impossible for a reasonable, dispassionate case to be made for a slight reduction from the present 24 weeks. I’ve been inclined to support that option and have just learnt a hard lesson. It has been a long journey from 1967 when David Steel pushed through the current, enlightened abortion law. Any give and the anti-abortionist militia will take it all. So, no, no, no, the limit must stay where it is.