By Rebecca Galbraith
Does anyone else think that Harriet Harman contributing to a blog on International Women’s Day is a bit much? Her time as Minister for Women and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party has seen the greatest opportunity for 18 years to extend women’s reproductive freedoms thrown away. This wasn’t a fight that she lost, it was one that she helped to suppress.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Bill last year provided the opportunity for legislation that would extend abortion rights to Northern Ireland, allow nurses to perform first trimester abortions, allow abortions to be carried out at GP’s surgeries and family planning clinics, reduce the two doctor jury to one (a start), ban the misleading advertising of pregnancy counselling services and clarify the limit of conscientious objection.
These amendments were designed to make a woman’s access to abortion easier, less distressing and to reduce the long delays that occur under the current law. They would have been a big step towards tackling the control of women’s bodies that is so essential to our oppression. In fact, it is reported that our Minister for Women asked MPs not to table them until the third reading, she did not come out strongly in public support for them and she participated in a Government which deliberately maneuvered so that they were not even read in the House of Commons. History will now remember Harriet Harman as the “feminist” who’s first act as a member of a New Labour government was to cut benefits for single mothers and near to last act was to obstruct the chance for women in Northern Ireland to have the right to choose. Double shame!
And so we are left where we were when we started. In order to access an abortion, I would have to declare mental health problems, get two doctors to judge whether this is the case and then run the gauntlet of a postcode lottery to access the service I needed. If I lived in Northern Ireland, I would not even have this right.
The 1967 Abortion Act does not apply to Northern Ireland: if a woman finds herself pregnant her choice is determined by how much money she can access. If she is well-off, and can easily raise between £700 and £2000, she will have a private abortion in England or Scotland. If she is part of the more than 50% of Northern Ireland’s society that is on, or below, the poverty line, then in all likelihood she will be forced to continue the pregnancy. Or she may try to cause an abortion herself.
11% of Northern Ireland’s GPs say they have seen the results of amateur abortions. In June last year, it was exposed that women in Northern Ireland and over 70 other countries with abortion restrictions, have been using the internet to get abortion pills. A British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology review of 400 customers found that nearly 11% had needed a surgical procedure after taking the medication, either because the drugs had not completed the abortion or due to excessive bleeding. Precious Life (pro-lifers) plan to lobby the Northern Irish assembly to tackle this issue, presumably with the intention of trying to get the site selling the pills shut down.
With 11% of women needing medical treatment after taking the abortion pill, of course something needs to be done but when the “pro-lifers” are bleating on about this, it is not the woman they’re thinking about. If they were really thinking about the women then they would be calling for reproductive freedom. The only way to stop women having to use these internet drugs, that may not be suitable for them, is to extend abortion rights to Northern Ireland – and then to extend and liberalise them. Martin Lupton, chairman of the ethics committee of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “They are putting themselves at risk in taking these tablets. Having said that, access to illegal termination services is extremely hazardous in any case and it may well be that this is a safer form of termination than illegal surgical methods, which may be the only alternative they have.”
The right to choose is an issue for all women, central to the struggle for women’s equality and liberation, but as Northern Ireland shows, it affects working-class women with particular sharpness. When abortion is illegal, most rich women are still able to access safe abortion provision, it is overwhelmingly working-class and poor women who suffer, damage their bodies, or die as a result of unsafe backstreet abortions. These pills should not remain the only alternative for women in Northern Ireland, or any woman.
In the debate around the HFE Bill last year, politicians (on all sides of the divide) would have had us believe that there is no support in Northern Ireland for abortion rights to be extended. Of course the religious fundamentalists are against abortion, but as Goretti Horgan from Pro-choice Northern Ireland says, “The attitudes of individuals towards abortion are significantly more sympathetic and, more importantly, liberal than any pro-lifer would ever admit. But they know it. And they’re terrified of it. The fact is, if (when?) the liberalisation of abortion law in Northern Ireland becomes a reality, it certainly won’t be by any back door.”
Significantly all the larger trade unions: UNISON, UNITE and NIPSA (The Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance) have policies that support extension of the 1967 Act. While some politicians will mutter that these are British unions “imposing” their views on Northern Ireland this is clearly nonsense. The policies are passed at Irish or Northern Ireland regional conferences and NIPSA – the largest union in the region – organises only in Northern Ireland.
So how did we lose this historic opportunity to extend abortion rights to Northern Ireland? It is not because no one in Northern Ireland supports abortion and Labour did not want to impose it – tell that to the 40 women a week who travel to have abortions or to the women who cannot do this and are forced to carry their pregnancy through to full term. No, a guarantee that abortion rights will not be extended to Northern Ireland is rumoured to be what swung the DUP to support the government’s 42-day detention proposal at the last minute. This would mean there was no vote about the Northern Ireland amendment because Gordon Brown presented the wombs of Northern Irish women as his bartering chip to push through his attacks on civil liberties.
The only useful contribution our Minister for Women could make on International Women’s Day is to resign. Meanwhile, grassroots feminist groups across Britain are mobilising to offer accommodation to Northern Irish women forced to make the difficult journey across the sea for an abortion, to push for free abortion on the NHS and to carry on our fight for true reproductive freedom. The struggle of our sisters in Ireland continues.