On Monday night, Conservative backbencher Fiona Bruce’s attempt to amend the law by imposing an explicit ban on abortion on the grounds of gender failed, largely due to the efforts of Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall. The arguments that won the day have been well rehearsed, on LabourList and elsewhere. A ban might have made the law less clear in cases of sex-linked foetal abnormality or, especially in particular Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities, where the pressure to have a boy had affected a woman’s mental health or safety. Education and cracking down on sexism and violence against women are the right answers; this was the wrong one.
But what was different about the discussion, both in Parliament and the media, was that the main voices on both sides explicitly claimed to be driven by gender equality. On the surface at least, the arguments were not about the ethics of abortion itself but about the best way to prevent a practice that is most definitely fuelled by deep misogyny (although evidence of how common it is remains far from clear).
If, then, a woman’s right to access abortion in principle is now largely a matter of consensus in Parliament, and we’re just clarifying the limits, that looks like progress, right? Surely feminists and their allies should be riding high this week? Wrong.
As the party that has always prided itself on championing the rights of women, Labour needs to be clear that what happened on Monday, and in the run-up to it, was a very clear restatement that abortion law in Great Britain is not, as many people believe it is, a pro-choice law. It is a law that allows abortion, on five specific health-related grounds; this was a much needed compromise when it was passed in 1967, when illegal abortions were killing 40 women a year and injuring and bankrupting many more. But a woman’s choice is still not legal grounds for abortion in this country.
This is despite the fact that most people, according to the British Social Attitudes survey, support a woman’s right to choose an abortion even where her health is not at risk. It also makes us an outlier in Europe, where abortion on demand, in at least the first three months of pregnancy, is available in nearly every single country other than ours (Ireland and my family’s country of origin, Malta, being notable exceptions).
But as MP after MP on all sides stood up on both sides on Monday to make clear that sex-selective abortion is abhorrent, it became increasingly clear how debates like this serve to obscure the bigger conversation on abortion that we need.
Parliamentary time, and media tolerance for women-specific issues, are limited: and this campaign, like the foetal viability one before it, keep those who support choice on the back foot. As long as they have to focus on staving off supposedly well-intentioned efforts to crack down on the “wrong” kind of abortion, it becomes harder, if not impossible, to make the case that Parliament should not be making these decisions for women anyway. And, as Fiona MacTaggart hinted, this may in fact be exactly the intended goal: to throw the pro-choice movement into confusion.
Critically, however, a law introducing abortion on demand would not deny us the right, or indeed the obligation, to be horrified by the decisions some women feel cornered into. In fact, the opposite is true: if tweaking abortion laws were off the table as a quick fix, we would have to focus on the hard work of prevention instead. In addition to sex-selection, for example, it should surely appal us that women in the UK are having terminations because it not safe for them to carry a pregnancy to term, pregnancy being a known risk factor in domestic violence. In both cases, using abortion law a stick to beat women- instead of their oppressors and abusers not only lacks compassion; it is also a perverse incentive to governments, who should be delivering better choices and outcomes for them in the first place.
It’s worth remembering that, flawed as it is, even the abortion law we have arose from a Private Member’s Bill, and not the commitment of an elected government to act on the needs of women. In that sense, it was not quite up there with winning the vote as a proud moment in the history of women’s fight for equality.
But if Labour wins the election, then it has an opportunity to create one. If Labour trusts women, and has confidence in the society it will work with women to build, then it should consider legislating for real choice – bravely and unapologetically. It’s time for someone to create the space to talk about abortion on demand. I hope Labour feels ready to take its work this week to the next level and do exactly that.