Laurie Penny: Say it again: it's our right to choose

Thursday 26 May 2011 00:00 BST

Do you believe that a woman who finds herself pregnant against her will should be forced to carry that pregnancy to term? If you find the notion inhumane, you're not alone. Seventy-six per cent of British adults are pro-choice, but that majority consensus is failing to make its voice heard as a barely-elected government allows anti-abortion lobbyists to cram their agenda through parliament.

This week, an anti-choice charity, LIFE, which is opposed to abortion even in cases of rape and incest, has been warmly invited to join a new government advisory group on sexual health. The Department of Health has said LIFE's inclusion on the panel will "provide balance" and ensure that "a wide range of interests and views are represented". No such balance has been sought in the formation of the government's new Sex and Relationships Education Council, launched in Parliament last week by Michael Gove. Every one of the nine "sex and relationship education providers" represented on the council is a faith group endorsing either enforced abstinence, anti-abortion education, or both.

Feminists are right to identify these moves as part of a sustained parliamentary attack on women's sexual and reproductive rights, an attack driven by fundamentalist Christian lobbyists and their tame MPs. Just a few weeks ago, pro-life politicians tabled an amendment that would force women seeking abortion to have counselling first. If passed, the notion that women are psychologically incapable of making decisions about pregnancy would be written into law, despite there being no scientific basis for the myth that abortion causes mental breakdown.

The lobbying process is slow and sinister: those who wish to punish women and girls for having sex and prevent them from making adult choices about their own bodies inveigle their way on to committees and surround tame politicians with their own people: in the UK, pro-life lobbyists fund-raise to provide sympathetic MPs with interns from their organisations. They fight to the make the process of obtaining termination services more and more difficult – in some American states, this sort of mission creep has been so successful that safe medical abortion, while still technically legal, is effectively impossible to access.

These attacks are often dressed up in the language of compassion, cloaked in hand-wringing arguments that women's sexual and reproductive choices need to be confiscated for their own protection. A 10-minute rule Bill that would encourage "abstinence-based" sex education for girls only is billed as "protecting" girls from a dangerous world of "sexualisation". The Bill was tabled by Nadine Dorries MP, who was shown in a 2008 Dispatches documentary nodding and smiling as the spokesperson for a Christian fundamentalist organisation drafted anti-abortion amendments on her behalf.

Abortion rights groups have declared themselves outraged and sexual health charities have expressed their "disappointment", but if we are to protect women's right to sexual and reproductive healthcare in this country, outrage and disappointment will not be enough. Here are the simple arguments that everyone seems shy to make: women are entirely capable of making important decisions about their own bodies. Their right to do so trumps all religious superstitions about the spiritual status of the human foetus; anyone who believes otherwise is perfectly free to decide against abortion should they personally fall pregnant. Finally and most important, it is morally unacceptable to force any person to endure the toil of pregnancy and the pain of labour against their will when we have the medical technology to offer alternatives.

The anti-abortion lobby is an influential and unscrupulous minority, high on a heady cocktail of sexism and superstition. If we are to prevent that lobby from ramming home its agenda, British liberals need to grow a collective backbone. We must stop equivocating, and start making a powerful, ethical case for every woman's right to choose.

Laurie Penny's 'Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism' has just been published by Zero Books

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