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We Still Need to Fight for Reproductive Rights

Recent attacks on reproductive rights across the West, along with the continued ban on abortion in Northern Ireland, are a reminder that the fight for choice is a long way from won.

This week has seen the latest high-profile attempt by anti-abortion groups to limit women’s reproductive rights, with an effective ban put in place in Alabama. It follows a number of restrictive measures in recent years, from American states to Spain and Poland. But despite this, it’s worth saying that the international pro-choice movement has become increasingly confident in its demands since I got involved seven years ago. Reproductive freedom for women in Ireland has been greatly improved thanks to the Repeal movement, the Isle of Man became the first jurisdiction in the British Isles to decriminalise abortion, and, further afield, groups in Malta are set to come out in force to change legislation there. (Alongside the north of Ireland, Malta currently has the strictest set of abortion laws in Europe.)

The pro-choice movement recently won a concession in the legalities of medical abortion procedures in England and Wales too, meaning that the second of two pills, taken 24 hours apart as part of the termination, can now legally be taken at home. This relaxes an element of control, reduces the risk of miscarrying in public following the second appointment and means less money is spent on taxis to and from clinics. Meanwhile, Ealing and Richmond became the first councils in the UK to implement Public Space Protection Orders (PSPO) outside local abortion clinics to prevent pro-life vigils harassing patients and staff. More councils are set to do the same.  

Somewhat predictably, anti-abortion campaigners have responded by suing these local authorities at great expense in an attempt to intimidate others who may have been thinking about following suit. Life, an anti-abortion charity, successfully sued Lambeth Council in 2018 for infringing their freedom of expression under human rights law, after being ejected from a county fair for displaying misleadingly-sized fetus dolls. Alina Dulgheriu, of the Be Here For Me campaign, crowdfunded over £50,000 and attempted to sue Ealing Council for introducing a PSPO outside the clinic. Fortunately, and in large part thanks to the robust evidence collected over a number of years by local group Sister Supporter, the council’s decision was upheld by the judge.

It is difficult to find the source of money flowing to anti-abortion groups in the UK. Wherever it is coming from, they are now a significant presence in university campuses which were once considered hubs of progressive thought. Today, many are recruitment bases for groups like the Alliance of Pro-Life Students. At one point last year they were advertising multiple paid organising positions on their website, as well as an all-inclusive pro-life weekend away to Milton Keynes.  

There are now pro-life (or ‘ethics’) societies active at Durham, Birmingham, Aberdeen, Glasgow, UCL, Oxford, Cambridge, and Strathclyde to name a few, with groups undoing previously-held policy preventing their set-up after continued threats of legal action in the name of discrimination. A generation of young people confident in their pro-choice views has forced the anti-abortion movement to mirror them — putting forward a young, female, and even feminist face to try to change its image. This is a testament to the degree to which bold, unwavering, and unapologetic arguments around choice have convinced the vast majority of the general public to progressive positions.

But the Tory government has been less responsive, at times characteristically uninspiring, and even openly hostile. They have made no bones, for instance, about £250,000 raised through the ‘tampon tax’ being gifted directly to aforementioned anti-abortion charity Life. Sajid Javid, the Tory home secretary, has dismissed harassment outside abortion clinics as ‘passive’, despite frequent reports of death threats to clinic staff. They did, however, go some way towards recognising the horrific abortion laws in the north of Ireland by quietly announcing they would fund the procedure for those forced to travel to England. But this, clearly, is not enough. 

Attempts have been made by Labour MPs Stella Creasy and Diana Johnson to further the conversation, but these are quickly nipped in the bud for fear of rocking the boat with the Tories’ allies in the DUP. Elsewhere on the left the response to the fight for abortion rights in recent years has been limited. The fact remains that Britain has still not decriminalised abortion. Abortions might be readily available for those who need them, but the element of stigma has not disappeared — and will not until body autonomy is no longer considered a crime. With the pro-life lobby constantly on the advance, any movement which isn’t progressing is in danger of losing ground. The consequences of allowing the anti-abortion movement to win breakthroughs would quickly be felt by women across Britain.