The election of Donald Trump as US president has put more women’s lives at risk. Just days after his inauguration in January, Trump signed a new “global gag” denying funding to any organisations that give advice about abortion services. It’s estimated that this will lead to 2.1 million unsafe abortions and 21,700 maternal deaths.
In a new book, Abortion Wars, Judith Orr said Trump’s election “is a pivotal moment in a new war on abortion rights”.
“There was Donald Trump’s election in the US with Mike Pence as his vice president, a rabid anti-abortion campaigner. And with Theresa May’s disgusting deal with the Democratic Unionist Party, suddenly it became an issue in Britain.”
The book looks at attacks on a woman’s right to choose and resistance to them. It details the long history of women organising to control their fertility—and the contradictions this sometimes threw up. And it explains why attacks on abortion persist today.
Sometimes it can seem that religion drives anti-abortion ideas. Judith describes the situation in Poland, Northern Ireland and Ireland, all strongly religious countries with repressive abortion laws.
She said religion “obviously plays a role”. But she added, “British imperialism established anti-abortion law in Ireland and other parts of the empire.
“Religion can be used to justify or legitimise conservative ideas. Jacob Rees-Mogg, for instance, is a horrible, right wing Tory. But he tries to give his opposition to abortion moral weight by claiming it’s about religion.”
The book looks at the growth of the church in Britain from the Middle Ages and the impact on women. Judith is careful to stress that religions reflect wider society.
“The growth of the church in Britain reflected and acted to maintain a society that was changing,” she explained. “It was used in many ways to control and discipline ordinary people.
“Religion doesn’t create women’s oppression but its ideas can bolster it.”
It can seem odd that, given the huge changes that have taken place in women’s lives over the past century, abortion remains controversial. But it’s because of how women’s oppression is structured into society.
“Women’s oppression has a material base that’s still entrenched in how the family is organised in society,” Judith explained.
“Women are still expected to take a larger responsibility of bringing up children and domestic work. The ideology that bolsters that means women are seen as being the life-giving mothers.
“So even where abortion is legal and commonplace, such as Britain, the stigma is still very deep. Abortion is still often seen as the bad option. A woman who says, ‘I had an abortion and I had no problem with it,’ is frowned upon.”
Judith said illegality and stigma “don’t stop women having abortions—they just make it more difficult for them”.
Doctors can refuse to perform abortions citing conscientious objection. The book describes the situation in Scotland, where the NHS generally only provides abortions up to 18 weeks into pregnancy. Yet the legal time limit for abortions in most cases is 24 weeks. Judith said provision of abortion services in Wales is also “dreadful”.
“After the 1967 Act the influence of certain leading gynaecologists, doctors and politicians in certain areas had an impact on provision,” she explained. “Legality alone is never enough, we have to talk about access.”
Restrictions hit the poorest while rich women have always been able to access abortion services.
The book includes a number of interviews with campaigners, abortion providers and women who have had abortions. Willie Parker, an abortion care provider, works in the only clinic in the US state of Mississippi where women can access abortion services.
He pointed out that “55 percent of the Mississippi population is black and poor”.
In the US abortion is legal, yet women face barriers to accessing services. “Individual states can challenge access,” Judith explained.
“They can make insurance that covers abortion difficult to get. They can say that clinics have to be more like hospitals to be able to provide abortions. They make it impossible for clinics to function. In some states abortion rates are going down.”
She added, “It’s hard to imagine what it’s like for women who have to travel hundreds of miles just to get a consultation.
Then there’s an obligatory waiting period of one or two days before they can be prescribed abortion pills.” Judith said abortion rights are “definitely going backwards” in the US. But there are moves to defend abortion rights too.
“In Texas since the hurricane one abortion clinic said it will give free abortions to women who may have missed appointments,” she said.
“And the election of Trump made people realise that things will get worse if they don’t fight. It’s been magnificent to see the scale of the fightback there, which has sparked resistance elsewhere.”
In Chile last month, a total ban on abortion was lifted. “It’s a chink,” said Judith. “If it’s ok to give a woman abortion in certain circumstances, you’re ruling out the idea that it’s completely impossible. There’s room to open it up.”
In the book Judith described how protests in Poland have opened up that sort of chink. “The government did a U-turn within days” of proposing a law banning abortion, she writes.
“The mass mobilisations may have opened the potential to not only push back further restrictions, but also challenge the pitiful legal provision women currently have.”
Similarly in Ireland, “pressure is building for a fundamental change” of the Eighth Amendment of the constitution that bans abortion.
“There is a sense that a critical moment has been reached in the fight for liberalisation of the law,” Judith writes.
And in Britain the government has had to allow women from Northern Ireland to access abortions free on the NHS. Judith said that “was a change that people said wasn’t possible”.
The book describes how the position of women is transformed in revolutionary situations. Judith is “very hopeful” that this can happen again. “Resistance and struggle is built into the dynamic of the system,” she said. “There will always be struggle, the question is how far people go and how much they can challenge things.
“But history has shown that where there are mass struggles the position of women in society is raised. We saw that in Russia 100 years ago but we also saw that in Egypt just a few years ago.
“Even though the counter-revolution is in the ascendancy there, ordinary people did bring down dictators and begin to shape their own lives. I feel the possibilities are very much there.”
What can we do today to bring about big—and small—changes? Judith said we need to fight for greater awareness of the barriers women face to accessing abortion, even where it’s legal.
“It’s brilliant that we got the 1967 Abortion Act,” she said. “But it was flawed from the day it was passed. Fifty years later we still have a law that is based on exceptions to a law from 1861.
“We can’t think that just because we have it, everything is ok.” Judith said the Act must be expanded and abortion decriminalised. Abortion is high profile and it’s the perfect opportunity to go on the offensive.
“People need to be active—raise it in trade unions and student unions,” she said. “The collective power of working class organisation in the unions in 1979 saw 80,000 people take to the streets and pushed back the anti-abortionists.
“We need to use our strength where we’re most powerful. This is a class issue. We need to challenge the laws and the controls, but at the same time challenge the ideas that hold them up.”
Fact check - looking behind the lies and myths on abortion
- Some 56 million abortions took place each year between 2010 and 2014 according to the World Health Organisation
- Over 21.6 million women experience an unsafe abortion every year, 18.5 million occur in poorer countries
- The 1967 Abortion Act makes abortion legal in Britain if certain conditions are met
- But there is no “right to choose” as women seeking an abortion have to meet certain conditions and obtain the agreement of two doctors
- Northern Ireland was excluded from the Act. The Family Planning Association estimates that approximately 2,000 women have travelled to England from Northern Ireland every year for abortions
- The 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill set the time limit for legal abortions at 24 weeks, except in certain circumstances
- In 2016 185,596 women living in England and Wales had abortions. Some 12,063 women resident in Scotland had an abortion in the same year
- Some 92 percent of abortions in Britain in 2016 took place before 13 weeks’ gestation, and 81 percent before ten weeks’ gestation
- Britain has the third most positive attitudes to abortion, after Sweden and France, out of 23 countries according to a 2016 Ipsos Mori poll
- Some 62 percent of people in Britain think that a woman should be able to have an abortion “if she decides she wants one”