Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2325

How the Tories aim to shift the terms of the abortion debate

This article is over 9 years, 7 months old
The ‘scientific’ arguments over abortion time limits are a guise to strip us of our rights to control our bodies, writes Judith Orr
Issue 2325
Women and men rallying in support of abortion rights in London earlier this year  (Pic: Smallman )
Women and men rallying in support of abortion rights in London earlier this year (Pic: Guy Smallman)

One in three women in Britain will have an abortion in their lifetime. When the Abortion Act made abortion legal in 1967 it was a milestone moment in the fight for women’s liberation.

Before that, thousands of women had died after backstreet abortions. Some 40 women died in 1966 alone from complications from unsafe abortions. Alongside wider access to the contraceptive pill, it meant that for the first time women had real control over their fertility.

Now the Tories are threatening to push back our hard fought-for rights. But they know that the mass of public opinion—consistently a two thirds majority—is behind a women’s right to choose.

So when they attack abortion rights they are forced to do it by the back door. That means they use the guise of “science” and arguments about the viability of the foetus to try and cut the time limit.

This year a study in the British Medical Journal anyway stated that there had been no such advances. But for socialists abortion rights are not about viability or science—but about the fundamental right for women to control their own bodies. Women cannot be treated like living incubators.


Tory health secretary Jeremy Hunt has said he supports cutting the time limit in half, to just 12 weeks. He knows he can’t win this now.

Instead he is playing to the right of the Tory party and trying to shift the terms of the debate. He hopes that the shock of such a threat may make people believe it’s only possible to defend 20 weeks.

Even if the time limit was cut by what David Cameron calls a “modest” four weeks, it would have dire consequences. Women who find out about severe foetal abnormalities at a 20-week scan would have no choice about whether to carry on with the pregnancy.

Women who have irregular periods or the menopause—meaning the pregnancy is undetected for some time—also need abortion provision up to 24 weeks. If those women are denied legal abortions many will resort to backstreet abortions—risking their lives.

We need to get organised. The trade union movement has been central to the defence of abortion rights. The biggest ever march in defence of a women’s right to choose was the magnificent 80,000 strong TUC march in 1979. It helped defeat an anti-abortion bill and set the bigots back decades.

We need the trade unions to be organised on this scale again. If women are denied the basic right to control our bodies we cannot play a full role in society.

Fighting for the right to choose in Ireland

Goretti Horgan, founder member of Alliance for Choice in Northern Ireland, writes on the situation there

In Northern Ireland abortion is illegal unless the doctor acts “only to save the life of the mother”—or if continuing the pregnancy meant the woman would become a “physical or mental wreck”.

The 1967 act was never extended here so it’s still like England, Scotland and Wales before the act was passed. Women who could afford to, got abortions. In 1964 10,000 women had an abortion privately in Harley Street.

Marie Stopes has announced it will open a clinic in Belfast this week, offering abortions up to nine weeks on the same basis.

Women will have to fit requirements under the law—and pay. This will only help a limited number of women, but it is very good news.

The anti-abortionists have fought hard to stop legal abortions taking place anywhere in Ireland. The Ulster Pregnancy Advisory Service had to close after its office was firebombed.


The vast majority who need an abortion will continue to get illegal abortion pills online. If they are over nine weeks they will still have to travel to England.

Doctors have avoided providing access to abortion even for women whose lives are at risk. They have had to travel to England with their medical notes under their arm. A poisonous atmosphere surrounds the issue from politicians on all sides—and doctors fear legal charges.

We are still fighting for the 1967 act to be extended to Northern Ireland. There is a real revival of pro-choice activism in Ireland—north and south.

It’s the first time since the 1990s that lots of young women are taking to the streets over the issue. They are clear this is about controlling their bodies and a woman’s right to choose.

All the major trade unions here, including the Ireland-only unions, are solidly supporting extending the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.

This weekend’s TUC demonstration is on the first Saturday after the new clinic opens. We’re making sure there will be a lively pro-choice section on the march.

Conscience clause is an extra hurdle

All three main political parties treat abortion rights as an issue of individual conscience rather than a women’s right to choose. MPs are allowed a free vote. Doctors and other medical staff are allowed to opt out of treating women who want an abortion in a conscience clause.

If your GP is against abortion it can put an extra hurdle in the way of a women getting an early abortion. A group of midwives in Scotland lost a case this year when they wanted to refuse even to supervise staff carrying out abortions.

Tory Dorries’ hypocrisy

Tory MP Nadine Dorries tried to push a vote through parliament to ban organisations offering abortion services from offering counselling. She claimed they were biased. But she also proposed allowing anti-abortion groups to offer publicly funded counselling.

Despite losing the vote, the Tories set up an all-party committee on the issue. Labour MP Diane Abbott walked out, saying it had become “a front for driving through the anti-choice lobbyists’ preferred option.”

Facts expose anti-choice lies

In 2011, 189,931 abortions were carried out in England and Wales, compared with 189,574 in 2010. Some 91 percent took place under 13 weeks, while less than 1 percent of abortions are after 22 weeks.

Some 96 percent of abortions were funded by the NHS. Only 6 percent support banning abortion in a recent YouGov poll.

Lobby your MP to defend abortion rights. Assemble outside the Houses of Parliament, 2pm, Wednesday 24 October. Lobby called by UK Feminista. Affiliate to

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