Socialist Worker

Abortion rights: a matter of access

Columnist Zoe Williams spoke to Sadie Robinson about the fight to defend abortion rights and the position of women in Britain today

Issue No. 2109

Zoe Williams is a journalist on the Guardian newspaper who has written frequently on abortion and women’s rights.

She is involved in the Abortion Rights campaign, which recently successfully defended the current law from an attack by anti-abortionists.

She spoke to Socialist Worker about the campaign. “We need to go back to basics and remind people of what it means to have a law against abortion,” Zoe said.

“It means that women are no longer in control of their fertility, and when they aren’t in control of that they are not in control of their lives.”

Zoe recently became a mother and she stresses the impact that motherhood has on women and the limitations it can introduce.

“Having a child is fun but it’s absolutely crippling,” she said. “It’s harder to work or forge a career for yourself. You’re either at the mercy of somebody else who makes money for you, or you rely on a state handout.

“If abortion is illegal, a lot of women have to have children that are unwanted. Many women end up having backstreet abortions and die.”

Zoe argues that activists should question the way that abortion is discussed within mainstream British culture, and resist treating it as a sombre and untouchable issue.

“You can never make a joke about abortion and that is a real problem, because you’re kind of saying that it’s so sacred that it’s never funny,” she said.

“I think people need to be assertively light-hearted about it.”

The solemnity with which abortion is talked about seems to give credence to the idea that abortion is wrong.

“Pro-choice activists sometimes start contributions by saying, ‘Obviously we would all like to see less abortions.’

“I think that’s a stupid way to start the argument. The idea is that only nasty people would want more abortions.

“Do they really think this was how the right to abortion was won in the first place? We shouldn’t be so defensive about it – I think people should come out fighting.”

I asked Zoe what impact she thought class had on the ability of women to access abortion services.

“Middle class women can access abortion very easily but if you’re waiting to get one for free on the NHS you’re screwed,” she said.

“You hear the most outrageous stories. A woman may find that her doctor disagrees with abortion.

“Working class women lack the financial muscle to bypass the doctor and go private. They can end up 19 or 20 weeks pregnant even though they went to the doctor for an abortion at 13 weeks. That’s a very stressful situation and seems very punitive.

“The more anti-abortion, foetus-fetishising rhetoric we have in society the more individual doctors will feel justified in letting their own strange predilections dictate what services a woman can access.”

Zoe thinks that the difficulties women often encounter when trying to access abortion services are largely hidden because the women who face them are overwhelmingly working class.

These difficulties will increase if access to abortion is reduced.

“Let’s say that the furthest reaches of Tory nonsense happens and the time limit for abortions was brought down to 12 weeks,” she says. “Even then middle class women could still quite easily access abortions.

“What annoys me is that middle class women think that as soon as the battle’s been won for them they can just wipe their hands of it, declare they’re ‘post-feminists’ and go about their business.

“But there’s no point in feminism at all unless you’re fighting for all women – otherwise you’re just fighting for yourself.”

Some people have taken the fact that the issue of abortion still creates such controversy as a sign that women’s rights are being rolled back.

“There are definitely still constraints in how women can express their sexuality,” said Zoe.

“But I think British society is quite advanced in its sexual politics. I worry a lot less about young women in Britain than those in the US.

“But I also think that feminism doesn’t exist in a vacuum – ideology generally is going backwards. There are discussions that people had in the past that they no longer have today.”

As a journalist, Zoe is scathing about the media coverage of abortion and of women generally.

“Abortion is an absolute gift to the conservative media because all the facts are against them but all the human interest stories are for them,” she said.

“There is never a shortage of people who are prepared to tell the Daily Mail how an abortion ruined their life.

“But there’s an enormous shortage of people who are prepared to say, ‘I had an abortion and it made no difference at all’. I really think that’s a shame.

“I have also noticed in the time I’ve been a journalist that there’s a lot of money to be made in making women feel anxious and bad about themselves. Whenever you run a story about who’s too thin or too fat your sales go up.”

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Article information

Tue 8 Jul 2008, 19:08 BST
Issue No. 2109
Share this article

Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.