Laura Woods looks at the issue of abortion and how reproductive rights are central both to women’s liberation and class politics.

Abortion poster

Last month the European Court of Human Rights decreed that an Irish woman’s human rights had been violated when she was forced to travel to the UK to obtain an abortion. The woman had suffered from a rare cancer and a continued pregnancy was likely to lead to a recurrence.

Abortion is still illegal in the Irish Republic, except ‘when a woman’s life is in danger’ (a clause emanating from a court ruling in 1992, made in the case of a suicidal teenage rape victim). But how can you judge when a woman’s life is in danger? It is a subjective decision, especially when it comes to the risk of suicide. No account is taken of the needs of already existing children or the emotional wellbeing of the pregnant woman.

Two other cases were turned down by the Court of Human Rights. One woman was a recovering alcoholic who did not want to jeopardise her chance of having her children returned to her from being in care. The other was a woman who did not want to become a single parent.

In the same week Bishop Olmsted (head of the Catholic Church in Phoenix) stripped St Joseph’s hospital in Arizona of its Catholic affiliation, after an abortion was performed to save the life of a pregnant woman. Although the risk of death to the woman was deemed to be close to 100% if the pregnancy continued, the Bishop decreed the termination was against the church’s teachings and excommunicated the members of the hospital ethics committee.

Irish legislation does not mean that abortions do not take place. Last year around 4,500 women travelled to England and Wales from the Republic of Ireland to obtain abortions in private clinics. The cost of the procedure, travel, accommodation and so on will have been a huge burden and some women, such as one of the claimants in the court cases above, have to borrow money from loan sharks.

Ireland is not the only country with restrictive abortion laws. Abortion is totally illegal in Malta, El Salvador, Chile, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. Even in countries where terminations are legal, usually only under very particular circumstances, access to medical care is often dependent upon having money and being close to medical facilities.

In 2008 there were an estimated 21.6 million unsafe abortions performed, 98% of them in the developing world. It is estimated that in sub-Saharan Africa there are 31 unsafe abortions for every 1,000 women – and worldwide 13% of all maternal deaths result from illegal terminations. It is evident why the World Health Organisation called unsafe abortion ‘a silent pandemic’.

When abortion was legalised in South Africa in 1996 there was a reduction in abortion related deaths of 90%. It is clear that making abortion illegal does not stop women having abortions; it simply translates into women taking greater risks and, often, paying the price through dreadful injuries and death.

English Abortion Law

In English law, abortion is first referred to in the 13th century with a reflection of the Church’s position that abortion was acceptable until ‘quickening’ (when the foetus started moving between 16-20 weeks). It was believed the soul entered the foetus at the time of quickening. In 1803 the Ellenborough Act introduced the death penalty for abortions after quickening and in 1837 the Ellenborough Act was extended to include abortions carried out at any time.

In 1861 the Offences against the Person Act made the performing of an abortion, or attempts to self abort, punishable by life imprisonment. The Infant Life Preservation Act of 1929 created a new crime of killing a viable foetus (28 weeks) unless a woman’s life was at risk. It was unclear whether it would be legal to terminate for the same reason before this date.

It was not until 1967 that this situation changed.

Abortion being illegal did not stop unwanted pregnancies or the need for abortion, and thousands of women were forced to resort to ‘back street’ abortions. Between 1923-1933 15% of maternal deaths were due to illegal abortions.

When pro life groups campaign against abortion what they are actually campaigning against is safe abortion and, so, a return to the risks of the back street for desperate women.

Methods such as using knitting needles or coat hangers, plant poison or permanganate led to women dying from bleeding, infections and toxic shock. In 1966 research showed that over 80% of convicted abortionists were women, no doubt motivated by concern for such desperate women.

The 1967 Abortion Act legalised abortion under certain conditions. This is certainly not legislation allowing abortion on demand as a woman still needs the agreement of two separate doctors.

In 1990 the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act lowered the time limit of viability for abortions in all but very limited circumstances. It was lowered from 28 weeks to 24 weeks. It was argued that babies can survive earlier than 28 weeks, although it is a fact that they can only survive (and often badly affected by prematurity) because of intense medical assistance. Babies born pre 28 weeks are still unable to survive independently.

Anti abortion campaigners make a great fuss about late abortions, when in fact in 2009 91% of abortions took place before 13 weeks (75% before 10 weeks).

A Political not Moral Issue

During the 1980s, at the height of Thatcherism and living in Yorkshire, I had an abortion. This was 6 months into the Miners’ Strike when unemployment was high, communities were being decimated and Thatcher had announced that there was no such thing as society.

A day spent at the clinic informed my attitude towards the issue of abortion. The women there all had their own reasons for the decision they had made, but what was apparent was that underlying many of those choices were economic factors. There were women who already had children and were concerned at the impact of the cost of another child upon the family, a woman who had a planned pregnancy and was then faced with her partner being made redundant and a woman whose partner had left her. For those women it is debatable how much of a choice they freely made, and how much the fact that they were paying the price of Thatcherism meant that they were forced into a decision they may not otherwise have made.

Women may also make the decision to terminate a pregnancy because they simply do not want a child or there may be medical issues for the woman or the foetus.

The right to choose whether to terminate a pregnancy must belong to women as it they who carry the baby, give birth and, in current society, usually have the prime responsibility for care giving.

The right to free, safe abortions is not a ‘moral’ issue. It is a political issue because it is a reflection of the place women hold in society, the degree of self determination allowed to women and the ability of women to control their lives, bodies and relationships.

The framing of abortion into a moral issue has curtailed discussion and disempowered women. I am a woman confident in my political arguments and certain that the choice I made to have a termination was the right one and one I have not regretted. However, experience of having an abortion is not something women discuss with each other, largely because the idea of morality has allowed the right wing to hijack the debate.

Women are made to feel ashamed of having made such choices as the debate is constructed around an idea of the foetus as an ‘almost baby’ rather than a collection of cells which is unable to survive outside the womb and totally dependent upon the pregnant woman for survival. The closing down of discussion between women has meant a lack of support and a lack of unity between us and has made abortion a secret act; a situation which entirely suits the right wing ‘right to lifers’.

The Importance of Reproductive Rights

The most effective way to reduce the demand for abortions would be to ensure all women have access to good quality, affordable child care and housing, well paid employment and flexible work patterns and a universal benefits system. The anti abortion campaigners do not fight for these benefits but instead wheel out emotional rhetoric about the right to life of unborn foetuses, whatever the cost to the prospective parents. They seem to have a nonsensical view that if the Abortion Act were abolished all would be right with the world.

The right to control one’s own fertility is absolutely central to any concept of equality for women. Women cannot be independent, access education or jobs on an equal basis with men or be equal partners in a relationship if they are unable to decide when or if they want children. Abortion should be free, safe and available on demand without needing to obtain the permission of two doctors.

However, abortion is not solely a woman’s issue. It is a class issue. Working class women have poorer access to abortions than wealthier women, who can afford private clinics, especially in health authorities where NHS abortions are hardly available because doctors refuse to perform them on ‘moral’ grounds.

It is working class families who are most impacted on by the birth of children they cannot afford, a situation set to worsen with the government’s intended benefit cuts. Men have a common cause in defending a woman’s right to choose as this leads to a greater freedom and equality in their relationships.

In America in 1979 federal government was stopped from funding abortions for poor women; an issue which split the women’s movement as middle class women did not fight on behalf of poor women.

In 1975, in Britain, an attack was launched on the 1967 act. 40,000 women and men marched together accompanied by trade union banners. Again, when John Corrie introduced a restrictive bill in 1979, 80,000 men and women took part in a demonstration called by the TUC. The strength to fight attacks on abortion rights lies in the unity of men and women.

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