Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/558/6656
Defend abortion rights
For a woman's right to decide when and whether to have children
Protesting outside parliament in October 2008, photo Paul Mattsson
The 1967 Abortion Act made abortion legal and safe and available on the NHS. It was an important reform won by women demanding the right to have control over their own bodies.
Elaine Brunskill, Socialist Party national committee
Prior to the 1967 Act terminations were only permitted if a doctor regarded a woman's health to be seriously threatened. Wealthy women could get around this by paying for abortions at private clinics. However, thousands of mainly working-class women, who could not afford to pay, either had to go ahead with an unwanted pregnancy or face the horror of an illegal back-street termination.
Before terminations were legalised newspapers advertised cures for "menstrual blockages", which women understood was a euphemism for abortion. These cures were often lead-based and many woman were poisoned and blinded.
The rights won by women under the 1967 act were never extended to Northern Ireland. Each week around 40 women have to travel, usually to England, where they are not entitled to abortions on the NHS. The cost of these terminations, including travel and accommodation, can run into thousands of pounds.
A modern-day version of back-street abortions is the only option open to many Northern Irish women facing an unwanted pregnancy. According to the Family Planning Association, women who are desperate to terminate pregnancies are accessing "rogue internet sites" to purchase "abortion pills". Often women receive incomplete dosages which can result in complications. There have been at least five known deaths from unsafe abortion practices.
Protesting outside parliament in October 2008, photo Paul Mattsson
In October New Labour ministers blocked amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill to extend abortion rights, including to Northern Ireland, from being heard. Many are convinced that New Labour did a 'dirty deal' with the DUP to keep abortion out of Northern Ireland in exchange for votes on the 42 day detention bill.
While looking for extensions to women's right to choose we must also defend the existing situation. As socialists we point out that reforms won under capitalism will at some stage be clawed back, unless there is a successful fight to maintain them. Since the introduction of the 1967 Act a small, well-funded minority of anti-abortionists have repeatedly attacked the right of women to control their own fertility.
Tory MP Nadine Dorries spearheaded a recent onslaught. Dorries waged a high profile campaign, '20 Reasons for 20 Weeks', and in May tabled an amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, which sought to reduce the abortion time limit from its current 24 weeks, a reduction from the original 1967 Act which had a limit of 28 weeks.
Dorries failed in this attempt to limit women's right to choose. However, we must not become complacent. For anti-abortionists, including many Tories and church leaders, the recent endeavour to cut the legal limit from 24 to 20 is a tactical move on the road to removing women's right to abortion.
Certainly, a future Tory government would attempt to further curtail women's rights over their own bodies. David Cameron voted to reduce the time limit to 20 weeks and 86% of prospective Tory MPs want the limit lowered according to a survey carried out by Conservative Home, an unofficial Tory Party website. Only 9% would vote in favour of maintaining the current time limit.
The issue of abortion is falsely portrayed, particularly by religious groups, as a non-political, moral question. However, under capitalism the curtailment of a woman's right to control her own fertility is very much an ideological issue related to the role of women and the family in society.
For most people the family is very important, because of personal relationships. But in a capitalist society the family is seen as a useful tool to be relied on for economic reasons and in order to maintain social cohesion. Women still bear the brunt of raising children and looking after their family and carry out a huge amount of unpaid domestic labour.
In this period of economic instability, there is an increase in the attacks on the living standards of workers, including housing repossessions, job cuts and cuts in services. Attacks on the health service will limit women's right to choose when and whether to have children.
Many women face poverty incomes, poor childcare facilities and a lack of decent housing, leaving them with few options other than to consider terminating the pregnancy. The struggle to defend a woman's right to choose must therefore also include campaigns for a decent minimum wage, housing, childcare and other public services.
Politicians often seek to distract us, using emotive campaigns on so-called 'moral issues' in the hope of whipping up a right-wing backlash. To distract workers from uniting to fight back, the capitalist parties scapegoat certain sections of society. Recently much of this has been aimed at women and families.
Last July David Cameron outlined his ideas about the family as a tool of social control in a speech in Glasgow: "The state cannot do it all. In the end, the best regulation is self regulation, not state regulation. That's why the family comes first. That's where we can really turn things around and start to repair our broken society."
Both New Labour and the Tories try to blame society's problems on the breakdown of the family. Changes within the family, such as the growth in the number of single parents, and the increase in divorce rates are blamed for social problems such as the rise in gang crime and knife attacks.
Ultimately only a socialist society can free itself from reactionary ideas which attempt to curtail the right of women to choose when and whether to have children. Capitalism is a system which is about making profits for the few, at the expense of the needs of the many.
Socialism would mean eliminating the material and ideological pressures that deny women the choice of when and whether to have children.
Of course we do not just sit and wait for a socialist future. We campaign to defend past gains and fight to improve accessibility to abortions now.
Currently women have to obtain the signature of two doctors to gain access to an abortion. However, the decision to terminate a pregnancy should be taken by the women, because they are the ones whose bodies are directly affected, though ideally they would have support in this.
In a socialist society abortion would be available on demand. If a woman needed either the advice of a doctor, or counselling in order to look at options available to her, the necessary advice would be given without any moralistic overtones.
One of the major problems facing women seeking an abortion is the lack of NHS funding. No extra provision was made in the 1967 Abortion Act to increase NHS funding. An essential part of defending abortion rights is defending the NHS against privatisation, which paves the way for big business to rake in mega profits. Money which goes into the back pockets of these privateers is money that cannot be used for NHS services, and abortions are invariably a soft target when NHS cuts are being sought.
A socialist policy for abortion rights would have to be an integral part of a plan for the NHS. We campaign for a fully funded, democratically controlled health service. To pay for this a socialist government would redirect money, currently spent on war, tax breaks to the super-rich, and bailing out failed bankers to the NHS.
The pharmaceutical and drug industry would also be taken into democratic public ownership. In 2006 it was estimated that globally the pharmaceutical market rose to $643 billion. In order to safeguard their individual profits each of these companies guard their research and new developments, whereas a socialist society would allow scientists to pool their resources. This would free up money and resources to improve birth control methods, including emergency contraception.
Alongside effective birth control, sex education is essential. However, so called 'pro-life' campaigners also speak out against these services. Refusing to give young people advice on safe methods of contraception does not ensure they refrain from sexual activities. A recent paper by the British Medical Journal looked at four UK programmes seeking to encourage teenagers to abstain from sex. It found that they "were associated with an increase in the number of pregnancies among partners of young male participants".
In America abstinence campaigns, such as the Silver Ring Thing, have received massive funding from the Bush administration for 'virginity training'. However, although these campaigns have delayed sexual activity, a study by Columbia noted that young people who had participated in these programmes were around one-third less likely to use contraception, as they are not, "prepared for an experience that they have promised to forgo."
In stark contrast a report by Unicef noted that in the Netherlands, which has the world's lowest abortion rate, there was an open attitude towards sex education and contraceptive advice.
Terminating a pregnancy can be a difficult decision, which can have a huge impact on women. However, the most effective way of reducing abortions is to ensure from a young age people have access to sex education and birth control advice.
Based on co-operation and equality, socialism would lay the basis for an end to poverty and all forms of discrimination and oppression. Only on that basis will women genuinely have the right to choose when and whether to have children.
Join us to fight for a socialist society where gains achieved are on a permanent basis for a society where for the first time in history women have real control over their bodies and fertility.
Other aspects of our 'what we stand for' column will be dealt with in future issues.
To enable women to have a real choice in when and whether to have children we demand:
- Free abortion on request.
- For a fully funded, democratically controlled National Health Service.
- Access to free fertility treatment on the NHS for all those who need it.
- Public ownership of the pharmaceutical industry.
- Access to free, safe contraception including emergency contraception; a reversal of the cuts in family planning services and a massive investment into sympathetic youth advisory centres.
- Improved sex education in schools.
- Information campaigns on contraception.
- A decent living minimum wage.
- A network of publicly funded, good quality, flexible childcare facilities.
- Maternity and child benefit to reflect the real cost of pregnancy, childbirth and bringing up a child.
- The right to adequate parental leave.
- A massive increase in spending on housing, education and other public services.
- A democratically run socialist society, planned to meet social needs rather than the profits of a few.
In The Socialist 26 November 2008:
Socialist Party NHS campaign
Environment and socialism
Socialist Party editorial
Socialist Party workplace news
Socialist Party campaigns
Socialist Party feature
Socialist Party women
International socialist news and analysis