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Abortion—demand the right to choose

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As the Tories look to do a deal with the anti-abortion DUP Sadie Robinson argues that socialists must fight to defend and extend the right to free, safe and legal abortions
Issue 2559
Protesters at a rally against an anti-abortion demonstration—women have fought for years for abortion rights

Protesters at a rally against an anti-abortion demonstration—women have fought for years for abortion rights (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Tory deals with the anti-choice Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) threaten a woman’s right to choose.

The DUP wants to take us back to the days when women died or suffered injury due to illegal, unsafe abortion. Legal abortion is almost impossible in Northern Ireland.

Illegal abortions hospitalised an estimated 35,000 women in Britain every year before it was legalised in 1967. For the 12 years before that abortion was the leading cause of maternal mortality in England and Wales.

At least 141 women died between 1955 and 1957 alone. Many more suffered in silence, too scared to seek medical help for fear of being arrested.

Socialists must be at the heart of defending a woman’s right to choose.

We live in a world marked by oppression and sexism. Women earn, on average, less than men. Women bear more responsibility for childcare and housework.

We are surrounded by images that treat women as sex objects. Convictions for rape are disgracefully low.

In poorer countries millions of girls are denied education.

Girls and women suffer appalling violence, live in unsanitary conditions and make up the bulk of refugees fleeing wars and poverty.


Socialists abhor all of this. We are for women’s liberation. But women can’t be liberated, or even equal with men, if they don’t have the right to control their own bodies.

For all the right wing outcry, abortion is a normal part of life and has been for centuries.

There is evidence of abortion in ancient Rome and in China, Egypt and Ireland in the 4th century.

Abortion was first referred to in English law in the 13th century. The law reflected the view of the Church. This was that abortion was acceptable until the foetus began to move at around 16-18 weeks into pregnancy—known as “quickening”.

This is when it was believed that the soul entered the foetus.

Today one in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime. One in five of all pregnancies in Britain ends in abortion. Globally the figure is a quarter.

Women have always sought to control their fertility. Restrictions don’t stop abortion—they simply put women’s lives at risk.

Because restrictions hit poorer women, abortion is a class issue. Attacks on it are also part of attempts to control sexuality

It’s estimated that up to 100,000 women had an abortion in Britain every year before it was legal.

Diane Munday became an abortion rights campaigner after being horrified at the impact of illegal abortion. She worked at Bart’s Hospital in London.

“I discovered that Bart’s and all the other London hospitals put wards aside every Friday and Saturday night for women who were brought in as a result of backstreet abortions—Friday being pay day,” she wrote.

“Bleeding, septic and sometimes dying. This was accepted everywhere.”

Richer women can always access abortion services.


Anti-abortion groups in Britain never challenged this—they only emerged when legal abortion was extended to all women.

Diane had an abortion in 1961. “I bought my abortion in Harley Street,” she wrote.

“I woke up thinking of the women who died and others who would die and that it was because I had a cheque book to wave that I was alive.”

Because restrictions hit poorer women, abortion is a class issue. Attacks on it are also part of attempts to control sexuality.

Some portray working class people as dirty and immoral if they don’t conform to their strict view of how sexuality should be expressed.

These ideas come from the top of society.

Think of the attacks on single mothers, gay people, pregnant teenagers and so on by politicians and the media. These ideas influence wider society.

Underlying them is the idea that sex shouldn’t be about intimacy or fun but only about procreation.

And that this should only take place in a certain type of family.

Many people rightly think such notions are nonsensical. And ideas have changed tremendously as ordinary people have fought for change and the needs of the system have shifted.

But they linger on because they make sense for the ruling class.

Marchers against the Benyon bill, an attack on abortion rights, in 1977
Marchers against the Benyon bill, an attack on abortion rights, in 1977 (Pic: Phil McCowan)

Treating motherhood as a key role for women encourages women to produce the next generation of workers.

Casting women as primarily carers means they can be called on to look after sick or older family members for free.

Responsibility for care shifts from society to individual women. Attitudes to women, and abortion, are tied up with class society. They shift as that society shifts.

Abortion was made illegal in Britain in 1861 as the Industrial Revolution got underway.

The state began to regulate marriages and register all births.

New measures aimed to police working class people’s lives—including their sexuality.

This went along with a change in the nature of the family and how the role of women was seen.

Work and home became separated. The idea developed that men should earn money for a family and women should look after the home and children.

Some bosses, losing workers to early deaths, began to see the family unit as key to sustaining the workforce and producing future workers.

Ideas about abortion are shaped by the economic needs of capitalism and struggles by ordinary people.

Campaigning won the 1967 Abortion Act. It doesn’t give women a right to abortion. But it was a huge step forward—which is why the right fights to snatch back the gains.

How protests beat back the Benyon Bill in 1977 and defended abortion rights
How protests beat back the Benyon Bill in 1977 and defended abortion rights
  Read More

Anti-choice supporters complain that abortion ends life and claim they are “pro-life”. Abortion does end life. But it is insulting to equate a fertilised egg or foetus to a woman.

And anti-choice bigots are not “pro-life”. They would be happy for women to die because safe abortion isn’t available.

Some want women to continue with pregnancies even when it puts their lives at risk.

Some ludicrously claim to oppose abortion rights on the grounds of protecting women.

They say abortion traumatises women and increases the chance of breast cancer. There’s no evidence for any of this.

The reality is that anti-abortionists don’t much care for the lives of people who are actually born. They just hope to hide the fact they want to drive women’s rights backwards.

A majority of people in Britain support abortion rights.

So anti-choice activists peddle myths to try and divide that support. Some argue that aborting a foetus with severe disabilities, for example, undermines the rights of disabled people.

Many disabled activists rightly oppose the way that anti-abortionists have tried to use disability to attack women’s rights.

Capitalism doesn’t make life easy for people with severe disabilities—particularly if they aren’t rich.

A disabled child may need expensive equipment, therapy, schooling and care. They may need homes to be adapted.

They may need constant support—which the state doesn’t provide—meaning that parents devote their whole lives to providing it.

All this, along with awareness of the suffering the child may endure, means women may decide to abort a disabled foetus.

Other anti-abortionists claim women are aborting foetuses if they are girls for religious reasons. This combines propaganda against women with racism.

Government reports confirm there is no evidence of sex-selective abortions taking place in Britain.

But it is a useful lie for those who want to pose as opponents of sexism while attacking women’s rights to control their fertility.

Socialists support a woman’s right to choose—whatever her reason. It is not acceptable in any circumstance to force a woman to continue an unwanted pregnancy. But we also want a society where people have a real choice about whether to have children, how many to have and when.

That means getting rid of the restrictions—the cramped housing, the low pay—that stops people having children when they want them, too.

The anti-choice brigade isn’t confident, for now, to go on a full scale offensive against abortion rights.

So they try to chip away at them, such as trying to cut the time limit for legal abortions.

We must oppose every attack on abortion rights—and fight to extend them too.

Rolling back women’s rights is only in the interest of the ruling class.

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