Abortion rights under attack

Union conferences can be – a terrible confession, this – pretty tedious affairs. At the last Unite (Amicus Section) Women’s Conference, though, one of the speakers left many of us both inspired and in tears.

The woman who spoke is someone I know well. An older woman, but still active in the Union. Someone with a genuinely impressive personal history as a trade unionist and political activist.

We were discussing a motion on defence of abortion rights. I asked my friend to speak in the debate, because – unlike most of the women there – she would remember the days of backstreet abortion, and all the horrors that went with it. I had no idea what she was going to say.

The story she told was a shocking one. As a teenager, she had been raped, and had become pregnant as a result. She had begged and borrowed the money for a backstreet abortion. The job had been botched – she almost bled to death. When she came round in hospital, she was threatened with prosecution (and treated like dirt) because it was clear she had had an abortion. Years later, as an adult, she fought hard for abortion rights. She did not want other women to go through the distress and pain she had been forced to experience herself.

Unsurprisingly, the motion was carried – from memory, unanimously.

It’s right for trade unions to take a view on abortion. Unite, quite correctly, defends the right of women to access safe, legal abortion, and is affiliated to the ‘Abortion Rights’ campaign. Women can’t have equality if they’re not allowed to control their own bodies. It’s also important to understand that abortion has always been a class issue. In Britain, before abortion was legal, richer women often had access to the relative safety of discreet private clinics. Working class women either tried a DIY job, or resorted to the backstreets.

Abortion rights are under attack, yet again. On May 20th, MPs will debate and vote on anti-abortion amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. The aim of the amendments is to lower the time limit for legal abortion. This would be the thin end of the wedge for a wider attack on abortion rights in general.

The main argument being used by anti-abortionists is that scientific and medical advances mean babies are more likely to survive at a lower gestational age. They claim that babies can survive at a gestational stage when abortion is sanctioned, so the logical thing to do is to reduce the time limit for abortion.

An important study, published last week in the British Medical Journal, showed there is no basis for the claim. The Guardian summary of the findings is here: Research Summary. The large-scale study compared survival rates in two periods: 1994 to 1999, and 2000 to 2005. Survival rates for babies born above 24 weeks gestational age had improved – supported by medical and technological advances. Survival rates for babies born below 24 weeks remained unchanged. In both periods, only 18% of babies born at 23 weeks survived (and most of those will have survived with multiple and profound disabilities). In both periods, no baby born at 22 weeks survived. The researchers concluded that the threshold of foetal viability remains unchanged.

Anti-abortionists have used a lot of lies over the years to try and attack the right to choose. This is the latest in a long line.

Anti-abortionists want to impose their own views on women – and take away the right of women to control their own bodies. The loss of abortion rights is unthinkable. There must be no return to the backstreets.


Tuesday May 20th, 5.30pm to 7.00pm, outside Parliament


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