Before 10pm last Thursday night, the DUP was a shambles of a party whose leader Arlene Foster was responsible for the cash-for-ash scandal which has cost an estimated £490m and caused the collapse of power sharing in Northern Ireland. The moment the exit poll was in, it became one of the biggest forces in British politics as the prospect of the party entering into a confidence-and-supply arrangement to support a minority Tory government took hold.
And not long after that, senior politicians were making it clear that the DUP’s regressive social agenda would be staying in Stormont. Same sex marriages remain unrecognised in Northern Ireland, and the 1967 Abortion Act (which permits abortion under certain conditions in England, Scotland and Wales) still doesn’t apply there. The DUP has blocked legislative efforts at liberalisation on both counts.
Over the weekend Ruth Davidson, the Conservative’s leader in Scotland, demanded – and got – assurances from Theresa May that LGBT rights would not be up for debate. Soon after, Jeremy Corbyn gave an interview in which he declared: “LGBT rights are human rights. They must not be sold out by Theresa May and the Conservatives as they try to cling to power with the DUP.”
And as for abortion…
Well actually, as for abortion, there’s been a bellowing silence at the senior levels of politics. Corbyn’s formulation echoed Hillary Clinton’s famous formulation that “women’s right are human rights”, but there have been no specific words of assurance for the humans who are women and whose right to safe, legal abortion is routinely placed under threat at Westminster.
This is especially galling from Labour because its manifesto actually included a commitment to work with the Assemble to improve abortion rights in Northern Ireland. At present, women can be – and are – prosecuted for obtaining abortion pills under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, a piece of legislation that predates women’s right to vote. Heck, it predates women’s right to own property.
And any woman who chose not to take her chances with the law or for whom pills are not an option must instead pay to travel hundreds of miles to England, where she must pay for her abortion because the NHS will not fund it. The system is cruel, and urgently in need of reform. Yes, the fact that abortion is a devolved issue makes it sensitive, but women’s rights should no more be up for grabs than LGBT ones.
In fact, as the Abortion Act reaches its 50th birthday, the state of the law on reproductive is due for revisiting altogether, with campaigners agreeing that it is vastly past time for abortion to come out of the criminal code altogether and be treated as the health matter it actually is.
So how come our political defenders of socially liberal values aren’t talking about it now? If LGBT rights are human rights, do women count as human?
Here’s the cynical answer. It’s also the answer that I think happens to be true. Women don’t get to count as human. LGBT rights are human rights because they affect men too. Women’s rights – well they only affect women, and don’t merit any special protections. It’s a particularly bitter disappointment that women like Theresa May, Arlene Foster and Ruth Davidson can enjoy the fruits of equality through their own positions without defending the reproductive choice that is the cornerstone of liberation for women.
Women can’t rely on the benevolence of individually powerful female politicians, or trust in the good intentions of male politicians who mouth the right words up until the moment anything is actually on the line. Our lives, our freedoms rely on feminism – the politics that recognises what we share as women and gives us a way to fight together.
Because without feminism, women will keep being left till last.
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