Attempts to limit women’s access to abortion were defeated on Tuesday evening. Anti-abortionists had tried to hijack the government’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology bill by putting various amendments that would restrict a woman’s right to choose – including cutting the current 24-week time limit to between 12 and 22 weeks and forcing pregnant women to undergo compulsory counselling.
All amendments were defeated, although some senior cabinet ministers disgracefully voted for them. Ruth Kelly, Des Browne and Paul Murphy all voted to cut the abortion time limit by half to just 12 weeks after Gordon Brown allowed them a free vote on the amendments.
Louise Hutchins, campaign co-ordinator for Abortion Rights told Socialist Worker, “The votes were a huge victory for women’s rights and for the pro-choice movement. Over the last few months Abortion Rights has worked tirelessly with the trade union movement, the student movement and thousands of individuals across the country to defend a woman’s right to choose.”
Up to 1,000 pro-choice activists held a loud, upbeat protest outside the House of Commons on Tuesday evening as MPs debated the amendments. It contrasted to a tiny anti-choice lobby made up overwhelmingly of ageing male bigots that gathered to sing hymns.
Many trade unionists joined the pro-choice protest – bringing banners from SERTUC, Bectu, the RMT, Unison, the NUT and the PCS.
Kate Elliott is the equality officer for the Bectu union. She told Socialist Worker, “The amendments aren’t really about lowering the time limit – they are being put by people who want to abolish abortion altogether. Any cut would hit the poorest women the hardest.”
Pat Campbell, head of equality for the PCS civil service workers’ union, attended the protest with a group of PCS members from London branches. She told Socialist Worker, “We represent 180,000 women in the PCS and have come to defend a woman’s right to choose. Trade unions are the largest voluntary organisation in Britain and are in a good position to mobilise people – it’s crucial that trade unions are at the heart of fighting for abortion rights.”
Activists from student unions and campaigning groups also joined the protest. Amran Hassan is a student at Goldsmiths College in London. She told Socialist Worker, “I came today to defend women’s rights. As a Muslim my religion doesn’t allow abortion. But I don’t think I have a right to impose my views on other people.
“If the abortion limit was cut it would affect working class women. What’s the point in making women suffer more?”
James Murray, Sachin Shah and Alon Orbach joined the protest from London young Labour. “If the time limit is cut it will mean backstreet abortions and more women dying,” said Sachin.
“The right try to portray later abortions as being about women just ‘changing their minds’,” said James. “But it’s not about that – it’s about women in the most desperate circumstances. We’ve come today because this is an issue of equality and standing up for the vulnerable.”
The Labour Representation Committee also brought their banner to the protest. “The votes on abortion amendments should be whipped votes,” said Jon Rogers. “The trade union and Labour movement has a history of supporting a woman’s right to choose. MPs are entitled to their ‘consciences’ but they are not entitled to vote with them when they’ve been elected on the basis of pro-choice policy.”
Wendy Savage is a long-standing campaigner for abortion rights, and helped to set up Doctors for a Woman’s Choice on Abortion. She told Socialist Worker, “We need to defend the time limit for two reasons. Firstly, a cut would hit the most vulnerable women. And secondly, if the anti-abortionists win a cut they will launch further attacks because their aim is to get rid of abortion altogether.”
Protesters saw through the arguments over foetal viability and foetal pain which anti-abortionists have peddled. “The anti-abortionists have run a campaign based on propaganda,” said Emma Healey, an art gallery worker. “There is no scientific evidence to justify any cut in the time limit. But even if there was this is still about a woman’s right to control her body.
“A minority of abortions take place after 20 weeks. If the time limit was cut women would be forced to raise a child they were unable to look after or the state would have to look after it. Either way, it wouldn’t be a good life for the child.”
Many on the protest were also concerned at a right wing amendment to restrict the right of lesbian couples to access IVF treatment – which was also defeated. Angela Mason from the Fawcett Society told Socialist Worker, “As a lesbian I’m concerned about what this amendment would mean for lesbian rights. The right talk about the need for a father but it’s hypocritical. If they really cared they would do something to improve paternity leave and working hours.”
The rabid campaign that was run by right wing MPs and sections of the press failed to restrict abortion rights. But that won’t stop further attacks in the future. “Nadine Dorries has already said that she expects the next government to be a Tory government and that she’ll try to cut the time limit for abortion again,” said Louise Hutchins.
“We cannot be complacent. Abortion Rights will now be focusing on putting pressure on MPs to turn their attention to women’s needs and improving abortion law.”
Activists across the country need to continue building Abortion Rights campaigns that can fight for improvements to abortion law and also be prepared to defeat attacks in the future.
For more information go to » www.abortionrights.org.uk