The news coming out of the Tory camp in the last week has been extremely troubling. Firstly Maria Miller stated her desire to lower the abortion limit to 20 weeks, and then Hunt joined in with his alarming statement that he believes the abortion limit should be 12 weeks. The right to self-determination in regards to reproduction is an international right enshrined in the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Any suggestion to rescind abortion rights, whether piecemeal in the case of Miller, or more radically as proposed by Hunt, defy the central tenets of this bill of rights.
In 2011, there were 189,931 abortions; 91% of these were conducted prior to 13 weeks; and only 1.5% were conducted after 19 weeks, nearly all of which were because of medical issues. These figures highlight that there is little to support the argument that a reduction in the upper-limit is justified by numerical necessity. These proposals are purely ideological; in 2008, all but one front bench Conservative voted to reduce the upper- abortion limit. Darinka Aleksic, of Abortion Rights, responded to the recent discussion by stating, “The fact that the minister responsible for women and equalities wants to restrict access to abortion, one of the most important women’s health services, is really alarming.” Maria Miller’s appointment as Equalities Minister is alarming for many reasons, not all of them centred on women’s rights, she has voted against almost every scheduled amendment to extend gay rights too. It is difficult not to read Miller’s appointment as Equalities Minister as an exercise in irony.
On Tuesday Nadine Dorries tweeted, “Maria Miller understands importance of recognising some women are traumatised by abortion process, that’s real feminism.” Other than the fact that Dorries is in absolutely no position to define what “real feminism” is, her assertion regarding trauma is factually wrong. The editors of the scientific journal, Contraception, argue that “the best literature to date concludes that there is no evidence of psychological harm from abortion and that the most reliable predictor of a woman’s mental health after abortion is pre-pregnancy mental health”. Of course there are a wealth of experiences, and no one experience should be considered universal, but for many women abortion is accompanied by relief. For many women the experience of an unwanted pregnancy is the more traumatic. Dorries’ assertion fails to take account of the fact that many women who have abortions are: not in stable relationships; fall pregnant during a one-night stand; felt pressurised into unwanted sex; or were raped. Many will find themselves pregnant whilst in an abusive relationship, or will fall pregnant when they are very young, or already have a large family they struggle to care for. Unwanted pregnancy is traumatic. Abortion can offer relief from trauma.
Banyard, the author of The Equality Illusion, asserts, “each day a staggering number of women acquiesce to unwanted sex, experience difficulties in accessing an abortion or feel compelled to keep hidden the fact that they’ve had one, are being denied crucial information about contraception and …are shouldering most of the caring responsibilities if they do have children”. This is an area in which it would be difficult for even the most ardent sexism denier to suggest that there is parity between men and women. Banyard rightfully concludes, “Full access to reproductive rights and sexual equalitty are a prerequisite for women to be able to participate in daily life as citizens equal to men.” Our government’s aims should be to increase women’s access to support, contraception and information, it should not be the demolition of their reproductive rights. The decision of whether to have a child is deeply personal; it is a commitment which will last for a life-time and involve a woman making incredible alterations to her life, relationships and career, and it is also a medical decision. Zoe Williams has argued, “if you do not consider the foetus human, then [abortion] becomes no more of an issue than getting a tumour removed…I do not consider a foetus which a woman has a one in three chance of involuntarily rejecting anyway to be a viable life unless she deems it so.” Abortion is the only medical area, other than mental health, where the patient’s autonomy can be removed. This should be a decision for the individual, not for the state.
A reduction in women’s reproductive rights is essentially dangerous. The World Health Organisation’s publication, Unsafe abortion: the preventable pandemic, states that globally 68,000 women will die per year as a result of unsafe abortions. The authors state that, “Access to safe abortion improves women’s health, and vice versa… The availability of modern contraception can reduce but never eliminate the need for abortion.” Access to abortion is therefore an immutable right which must be extended to all women “irrespective of where they live”. It wouldbe a complete abuse of human rights if our government made the decision to remove, to any extent, a woman’s right to this self-determination, and would arguably lead to the rise in unsafe, illegal abortions in the UK, and would put women’s lives and health at risk.
At a time when child poverty is increasing, largely as a result of the Coalition’s austerity measures, including benefit cuts, their desire to restrict women’s reproductive choices is incredibly concerning. The government’s own publication, End Child Poverty, states “On average throughout England, one in five (21.3%) children are classified as below the poverty line (before housing costs). In some areas of our large cities, this rises to over half.” Arguably, enforcing parenting upon women in this current economic climate is particularly inhumane.
Dorries may see Miller’s desire to reduce the upper-limit of abortion as “real feminism”, I see it as a regressive act and a gateway to further erosions of women’s reproductive options, ultimately impinging on their right to parity with men within our society. If that is “real feminism”, I would hate to see what Dorries’ view of sexism and misogyny is.