Lisa Hallgarten and Jayne Kavanagh consider what more do we need than choice.
Three years ago we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Abortion Act. This piece of legislation was hailed as making a vital contribution to public health, bringing access to safe, legal abortion to women across the UK – with the shameful exception of Northern Ireland. Then last year, after decades of campaigning, abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland. Though access to abortion is severely hampered by anti-abortion politicians and institutions failing to fund or commission abortion services properly, activists and healthcare professionals are working together closely to improve the situation.
In the rest of the UK, in a rare silver lining, the coronavirus pandemic has actually improved access to early medical abortion, with emergency measures introduced allowing for a rapid transformation to a telehealth model that has benefited the vast majority of those seeking abortion.
Compared to countries around the world where we see people fighting tooth and nail for any access to legal abortion, the UK is in a good place. But how complacent can we be about our reproductive rights and what more is there to do?
Abortion remains within the criminal law in England, Scotland and Wales. It is subject to repeated threat and we have not established abortion as a non-negotiable right for anyone who needs one.
One in three women and some trans and non-binary people will have abortions. We all know people who’ve had one. This has resulted in a broad consensus around the right to abortion and the total failure of the anti-abortion movement’s strategy of characterising people who have abortions as murderers. Their aim now seems to be to create as much distress as possible to those who are having abortions through clinic protests that shame and intimidate service-users; and to focus on undermining the Abortion Act piece by piece by attacking the kinds of abortions that they think create moral doubt and divide pro-choice people.
To that end, a campaign is now underway to demonise and ultimately criminalise the provision of abortion where Down’s Syndrome is diagnosed. If successful it would do nothing to improve the lives of disabled people or their families, but would result in people being forced to carry pregnancies to term following a diagnosis not just of Down’s Syndrome, but of a range of severe anomalies many of which will result in significant disability or death during pregnancy or in infancy.
Restricting reproductive rights is never a solution for a pregnant person or their families. It does nothing to transform society to make it a better place for all people regardless of their sex, health, disability or any other characteristic.
We should be empowering women to prevent pregnancies they don’t want by reversing the cuts to local authority public health budgets which have led to closures of contraceptive clinics around the country, alongside rising abortion rates. We should try to understand more about why some BAME people experience higher levels of unintended pregnancies and adapt our education and services to remedy the causes.
For those who are pregnant we should provide information and space to support their decisions, including about complex pregnancies. We should give people the respect and autonomy to make decisions that are right for their lives and families. Most importantly, as socialists, we should aim to create a society in which people have meaningful choices because the support is there whatever route they go down.
We could learn a lot from the reproductive justice approach developed by black women in the United States, which centres the autonomy and rights of the pregnant person, but also acknowledges the range of factors that in reality constrain and shape their choices: poverty, discrimination, homelessness, the lack of child support or employment opportunities. We should all challenge the stigma which, due to our tabloid culture of misogyny and racism, paradoxically stigmatises being a younger mum, and an older mum, a full time mum in receipt of benefits and a working mum.
We will truly be able to say we have realised our reproductive rights when anyone who can get pregnant can fully decide for themselves, free from stigma, coercion or constraint the number, and spacing of their children; confident that their children will have every opportunity to survive and to thrive.
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