Speaking up for the right to abortion

Political and personal silence on abortion speaks volumes for how the new wave of pro-lifers have hijacked media attention
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The Independent Online
As we move into the season of goodwill and bad taste, the children of Dunblane's song, a reworked version of Dylan's Knockin' on Heaven's Door will inevitably be the Christmas Number One. The Spice Girls have delayed the release of their Christmas single to make way for a cause you can't argue with but a song that should never have been sung.

Should the Spice Girls, those supposedly empowering foxes, themselves choose to make a charity record, I would like to suggest that they donate the proceeds to a far less popular cause - that of defending women's rights to abortion.

The National Abortion Campaign has to do its necessary work on pounds 30,000 a year. The Pro-Life Alliance, which plans to put forward 50 election candidates so that it is entitled to a party political broadcast, is clearly loaded.

If the Spice Girls stood up and told us what they wanted, what they really, really wanted, alongside ZigaZig AAh was a "woman's right to choose", they would not actually be saying anything terribly controversial.

A Mori poll conducted last September found that 80 per cent supported such a view. The combination of Nineties good-time girls and clumsy feminist sloganeering would be worth shelling out for. But I suspect that for all their frenetic girl power, The Spice Girls are likely to remain strangely silent on this issue.

They are in good company. Those who are pro-choice, of whatever political complexion, are on the defensive, yet instead of defending abortion, they merely refuse to talk about it, falling back on the get-out of it being private and personal.

Abortion remains a key political issue, however, for it still represents the symbolic right of women to control their own bodies. This is why we have to have this argument time and again, and if we are not vigilant, we will have to have it on terms set by the anti-abortionists.

This is precisely what is happening at the moment. The "pro-lifers" have been making the running. The arguments of American feminist Naomi Wolf, who, having recently given birth, wrote a piece in New Republic questioning the right to abortion, were immediately replayed here. Castigated as a heretic by some, Wolf's piece, though I disagree with much of it, remains a thoughtful contribution to the discussion.

In this country, however, the complexities of IVF treatments and the advances in genetics have lead to impassioned but often ill-informed debates about frozen embryos and multiple births and selective termination culminating in the horrible championing of Mandy Allwood by the anti-abortionists.

The schoolgirl who refused to accept a prize from Barbara Follet was presented as a mini-heroine. Elizabeth Peacock (pro-life and, incidentally, pro-hanging) gained a first reading for her bill designed to outlaw the procedure known as "partial-birth abortion". She claimed it was not known how widely this procedure is used in this country. Medical sources, however, estimate that this technique is used at most once a year here, if that.

All these things are news because the anti-abortionists are very clever at manipulating the media. By focusing on particular and sometimes harrowing cases, they have pushed the pro-lifers into arguing only on abstract principles, and as we well know, human interest is always more newsworthy than the discussion of liberal beliefs. The spectre of American-style abortion politics is more media-sexy than the findings of opinion polls showing that most people accept a woman's right to legal abortion.

Why, then, are we frightened into silence on this issue? Are we in danger of believing the pro-life propaganda that says any public figure who defends abortion is taking huge electoral risk? It seems that we are, and as we do so, pro-lifers are gaining ground.

Last month's Mori poll for Marie Stopes and The National Abortion Campaign received little coverage, perhaps because what it revealed is that abortion is not an electoral issue - 72 per cent of both conservative and Labour supporters said that a candidate's stance on abortion would not alter the way they voted.

Why are politicians running scared? Just as women are made to feel ashamed for having abortions, so too are politicians ashamed of even raising the issue. It appears that Tony Blair has made it plain that he does not want abortion raised as an issue in the election. This is cowardice. We have had nearly 30 years of legal abortion in this country and this is supported by both sexes.

Men as well as women need now more than ever to speak up. Instead of defending a far from perfect situation or being cowered by the new wave of pro-lifers, we should be considering what to do 30 years on from the 1967 Act. As 1997 is also the year of a general election, this looks unlikely, but we must take the initiative. The 1967 Act was concerned with protecting doctors as well as helping women. Thirty years on, we need an act to enshrine the principle of abortion on request for women in the first trimester. This is hardly radical - it is already the law in several European countries.

Abortion may be a private experience but it is a common enough one for most of us to have been through it or know someone close who has. Yet personal guilt translates into political silence. Nobody is triumphalist about abortion but it is a fact of life. Refusal to recognise this leads to private misery and public shame and the pretence that by not mentioning it, somehow we can get away with it.

By not talking positively about this hard-won right, we are condemned to live in fear of those who would take it away. The quiet acceptance of women's rights in this area by the majority is misinterpreted as unease. The politicians and the media are more concerned with the views of a few well-funded moral absolutists.

Now is the time for those who are pro-choice to make enough noise so that even those skilled at turning a deaf ear finally realise that votes are not to be won by risking women's rights and women's lives. If the politics of the anti-abortion lobby depend on fear fuelled by embarrassment and shame, then surely nothing benefits them more than our silence. And that is what we should be afraid of.