Last week’s conference of the British Medical Association (BMA) passed policy calling for women to have easier access to abortion.
The BMA briefing paper, published in the run up to the conference, highlighted the medical advances that mean that abortion in the first three months of pregnancy is now much safer for women than in the past.
The paper went further, arguing that access to abortions in the first three months “should be available on an informed consent basis as with other medical procedures”.
It also pointed out that conditions in the current legislation “do not stop women seeking abortion, but potentially expose women to delays, and consequently more costly and higher risk procedures”.
Doctors rejected the medical ethics committee’s proposal to allow “trained nurses and midwives to carry out early abortions”. But they do now have policy to back abortion on demand in the first three months of pregnancy.
This is a significant move for the BMA. It shows that despite the regular media headlines about growing numbers of doctors refusing to refer women for abortions, the majority of doctors support a woman’s right to choose.
It is 40 years since the 1967 Abortion Act which made free and safe abortions available to women in England, Wales and Scotland. This was a major gain for working class women in particular – the rich have always had access to abortion if they could pay for it.
Before the 1967 Act around 35,000 women were hospitalised every year as a result of illegal backstreet or self-induced abortions.
Forty years on, however, women still don’t have universal access to abortion on demand. They are still required to get the approval of two doctors, and the availability and ease of accessing abortions on the NHS varies from area to area.
Having an abortion is still a taboo – and the same moralistic lies that abortion causes infertility and that no woman ever recovers emotionally are still peddled.
This was repeated by Tory MP Anne Winterton recently as she put forward a ten minute parliamentary bill to compel women to have a seven day break, to allow counselling, before an abortion was carried out. The bill was massively defeated.
Winterton stressed the “psychiatric and health risks” following abortions. Pro-choice campaigners rightly pointed out that it was insulting to women to suggest that they did not stop to think before deciding to have an abortion.
And, as the BMA states, there are fewer health risks for a woman having an abortion in the first three months than for a woman carrying her pregnancy to the full term.
Women’s right to choose is increasingly under attack from the right – there have been three ten minute rule bill’s tabled on the issue this year alone.
In 1990 amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology act meant that the time limit in which abortions are allowed to take place was reduced from 28 to 24 weeks of pregnancy.
It also meant that restrictions for late abortions in cases of risk to life, foetal abnormality, or grave physical and mental injury were removed.
A new bill that aims to restrict abortion is due to go before parliament this year. The draft of the Human Tissue and Embryos Bill is expected to be published on 25 July.
MPs on both sides of the abortion debate will table amendments to this bill – as in 1990 – to attempt to change the law on abortion.
The bill is due to go to parliament in November although it may be delayed to coincide with an investigation into the time limit that is set to report to parliament before Christmas.
Anti-abortion campaigners are gaining confidence. The mainstream media have largely followed their agenda – with the recent furore over the increase in abortions, and the images of foetuses “walking” inside the womb.
The right wing is borrowing campaigning techniques from the US anti-abortion campaigns.
Anti-abortionists hounded head teachers, health practitioners and their families last year after a tabloid newspaper published a list of 226 schools where the morning after pill is available on prescription for under-18s.
Despite the attacks on abortion rights, a poll commissioned by the Abortion Rights campaign group and the Joseph Rowntree Trust in March showed that 77 percent in Britian think women should have the right to choose.
The right to abortion is not about morality or technological and medical advances. It is about the right of women to control their own fertility. And it is about working class women having access to safe and free abortions.
The right to abortion was won 40 years ago when activists, trade unionists and MPs came together to fight for a woman’s right to choose. Campaigners and trade unions have fought to defend that right.
We will need to revive the fight in the upcoming months.
Forty years ago activists took to the streets with the slogan, “Not the church, or the state, women must decide their fate.”
Today we still haven’t got that right. But we must be prepared to not only to defend the rights we have won, and also fight for a woman’s right to choose to become a reality.
For more on how the 1967 Abortion Act was won, go to » Abortion: defending the right to choose.