Abortion rights: the fight at home

In wake of the US Supreme Court's overturning of Roe V. Wade, Phoebe Williams writes on the current state of abortion rights in Britain
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We have all watched in horror as the news of the US Supreme court’s decision to overturn Roe V Wade was announced this week. We fear for our comrades across the pond and how this terrifying decision is going to affect them, and we as the Young Communist League have attended solidarity protests to show our support. Abortion rights are undoubtedly a communist issue, as this ruling will directly impact working class women the most. Whilst we continue to show solidarity, it is essential that we also address the current state of abortion rights in Britain.

In the UK, abortion is still considered a criminal act. Anyone who has an abortion without legal authorisation from two doctors can face up to life imprisonment. This is due to a law passed in 1861, before women could even vote, called the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA). The 1967 Abortion Act made therapeutic exemptions to the OAPA, instead of completely decriminalising Abortion.

The campaign on this issue ran by BPAS, We Trust Women say on their website, “Although often seen as a victory of the women’s movement, the Act was passed very much in response to the growing public health problem of illegal abortions. It placed decision-making about abortion in the hands of doctors, not women. Abortion is still not a woman’s choice and no woman has the right to end a pregnancy. Instead, two doctors must decide whether they think she should be allowed to end the pregnancy. No other routine medical procedure demands legal authorisation by doctors in addition to the normal requirements of obtaining informed consent.”

Many women have already been prosecuted for having abortions with medication brought online. “In December 2015 a 23-year-old mother from the North of England with a history of emotional and psychological problems was sent to prison for using abortion medication bought online to induce a pregnancy in the third trimester.”

Although legal abortion services can be accessed in the UK, illegal abortions are still being undertaken for multiple reasons. We Trust Women list just a few of these reasons, “They may be young women who are too scared to tell their parents that they are pregnant. They may be experiencing domestic violence and worried that their partner will find out if they go to their GP or an abortion clinic. They may also be women who don’t know how to access abortion services, or are unable to do so through the NHS because of their asylum status.”

No other medical procedure is governed by legislation this old, clearly showing that this is about controlling womens’ bodies, and not based on up-to-date medical information. As long as abortion remains classed as a criminal act, a true pro-choice UK cannot not possible.

Although abortion was legalised in Northern Ireland in 2019, the ability to access abortion services is still extremely limited. Currently, the only abortion service available in Northern Ireland is an early medical abortion up to 10 weeks, and this can still be tricky to access, based on your location and doctor.

The Minister for Health in Northern Ireland, Robin Swann, has still not commissioned the abortion services now required by the law. With the recent news that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, has introduced regulations that will allow the Department for Health to commission abortion services without the need for Executive Committee approval, the clock is ticking for Swann to commission these essential, life-saving services. Naomi Connor from Alliance for Choice said: “We regularly have to help people who struggle with access to abortion in NI, either because there is no official Department of Health information available or they fall outside of the current 10 week limit on Early Medical Abortion. This is unacceptable.”

In 2021 alone, 161 women travelled from Northern Ireland to England and Wales in order to have an abortion during the pandemic. Two women attempted suicide when their flights were cancelled due to covid restrictions. It is clear that this is a life-or-death issue, and the Minister for Health dragging his feet can only result in more tragedy and pain.

Abortion access is not just a problem in Northern Ireland, those living in Scotland are also being failed by flawed abortion services. Since 2019, 170 Scottish women have been sent across the border to England in order to have abortions, including children under the age of 16. This means that roughly one Scottish person a week is sent to England to have an abortion. This may be hard to believe considering abortion is legal up to 24 weeks in Scotland, the same as England, but Lucy Grieve, co-founder of Back Off Scotland, discovered that there is “no health board in Scotland that provides abortion care up to the longstanding legal limit of 24 weeks to the women in its area”.

In fact, 8 health boards do not provide abortions past 18 weeks, 4 health boards have a limit of 20 weeks, and NHS Fife has a shocking limit of 15 weeks and 5 days! Rachael Clarke from BPAS (British Pregnancy Advisory Service) had this to say on the matter: “Women who need abortions at later gestations are disproportionately likely to have additional vulnerabilities, due to drink and drug misuse or they may lead chaotic lives. There should be a centrally commissioned specialist service for surgical abortions up to 24 weeks’ gestation.”

Shockingly, the Scottish government has been aware of this problem since 2014, when they commissioned research on the issue. The researchers concluded that it was a ‘necessity’ that access to abortions in Scotland was improved. Yet since this report, nothing has changed. When asked about this issue in May, Maree Todd, the Minister for Women’s Health in Scotland, simply stated ‘we are looking at that again’. Scottish women deserve better than this, especially when the ability is clearly there to offer adequate abortion services. 

Additionally, there is a plague spreading across the UK, the plague of so called ‘pro-life’ protesters harassing those at abortion clinics. Make no mistake, these people are not pro-life, they are pro forced birth. Many may know about this issue in the USA, but may not realise the extent of the problem at home. In 2019, over 100,000 women were harassed while accessing abortion services. This high figure is not surprising considering that between 2018 and 2021 anti-abortion protesters targeted 43 clinics across England and Wales. According to BPAS, 1-in-4 women attended a clinic that has weekly or daily protests. These protesters use tactics such as filming those accessing abortion services, filming the staff members of the clinics, following patients down the street, throwing holy water at clinics, advertising dangerous and unproven medication they claim can ‘reverse’ abortion, distributing false medical information, large marches, reciting loud anti-abortion prayers and hymns, and displaying large, often fake, images of dismembered foetuses. These intimidating tactics have led to those in need being too scared to attend their appointment. Many women who have travelled to England from Scotland and Northern Ireland to have abortions have experienced this harassment, which on top of travelling, adds an extra layer of stress to what is already often a difficult experience. 

Since Sister Supporter, a group of pro-choice grassroots activists, helped to secure a buffer zone around an Ealing clinic in 2018, cases of harassment have virtually disappeared. The buffer zone, called a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO), means that anti-abortion protesters cannot go within 100 metres of the clinic. Buffer zones have since been implemented in Richmond in 2019, and in Manchester in 2020. This has been extremely effective on a local level, although it is a lengthy process and places the responsibility on local residents and councils, when the responsibility should be on the UK government to find a national solution for anti-abortion clinic harassment. 

Our children are not even safe from this anti-abortion rhetoric. In May this year, VICE World News discovered that US donors are funding SPUC (Society for the Protection of Unborn Children), an anti-choice organisation in the UK that gives talks to school children and medical professionals. SPUC received nearly £73,000 via the donor agency NPT Transatlantic, which allows UK and USA taxpayers to donate anonymously. The SPUC claim this money was used to ‘teach’ primary school children about fetal development and abortion, and to organise a conference to “train medics to recognise and prevent cases of coerced abortion.” Coerced abortion absolutely does happen, but SPUC cherry-pick cases and inflate the prevalence in order to push their agenda. In fact they completely ignore the research that states the findings “do not support the assertion that women are frequently coerced into abortions, but rather, that they are more often coerced into continuing a pregnancy.” 

SPUC also spread misinformation about telemedicine (pill-by-post) abortions, which they call ‘DIY abortions’, even though this type of abortion is safe and widely supported by both health boards and gender violence charities. Dr Jonathon Lord from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists said that “there is a wealth of evidence to show that this telemedicine pathway is a safe and effective service which is preferred by women, and enables women to access abortion care sooner.” He also called abortion an “essential healthcare service”. In addition to their abortion misinformation, SPUC also teach abstinence only sex education, even though research has continuously shown that this is ineffective, and does not effectively delay sexual intercourse. SPUC claim they are using evidence-based information and statistics, but the truth could not be clearer. They are an organisation using the tactics of USA anti-abortion groups in order to promote patriarchal ideas and spread misinformation, and we cannot allow them to poison the minds of our school children.

The decision to overturn Roe V. Wade in the USA has shaken those of us who need access to abortion services in the UK, as this sets a dangerous precedent worldwide. If the supreme court was able to overturn a decision that seemed concrete, what is stopping the UK government from doing similar? We have already seen just how immoral they are with the introduction of the discriminatory Nationality and Borders Act, the terrifying Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, their refusal to include transgender people in the conversion therapy ban, and the cost of living crisis in general.

On Roe V. Wade being overturned, the SPUC said in a statement “The impact in the US will, no doubt, be profound, and it is a sure sign that the era of extreme abortion is coming to an end. The scientific fact that life begins at conception is as true here as it is in the US, as is the fact that all those unborn lives should be protected and cherished. SPUC continues to fight towards that goal in the UK.” See their disgusting statement as a call to action in the UK. We must continue to defend abortion rights by supporting counter protests by pro-choice activists, volunteering as clinic escorts, organising against the cost of living crisis, and supporting the call for protest buffer zones around abortion clinics. 9 out of 10 people in the UK support abortion rights, so we must fight as this majority to crush this heightened wave of anti-choice misogyny.   

“As long as women or men live under the pressure of unemployment, as long as the level of wages is not sufficient for a family, as long as housing conditions are unfavourable, and as long as the state does not make motherhood easier for every woman in various ways and does not provide social services for mother and child, it is clear that the women must stand up for free abortions.”

Alexandra Kollontai (1936)

Phoebe Williams, is Women’s Officer for the YCL’s East of England branch

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