Reproductive freedom in the UK.

Andy Roberts wonders why so few of us are aware of the threats to reproductive choice in the UK.

Andy Roberts, 16 June 2003

Reproductive freedom is one of the fundamental feminist issues. Central to any notion of such freedom is access to abortion. In the US, abortion is a warzone where pro-choicers battle it out with anti-choicers, sometimes literally. Just recently, in Buffalo, anti-abortion activist and fundamentalist christian James Kopp was sentenced to 25 years to life for the murder of abortion provider Dr Barnett Slepian in 1998, after a manhunt across America and Europe.

In the UK, abortion-related shootings are unthinkable; sure, there are anti-abortion groups, but abortion is legal, an overwhelming majority in every poll ever conducted supports it, there's nothing to get worked up about. Right?

Since first getting involved with the pro-choice movement over a decade ago, I've been perpetually bemused by the complacency surrounding the issue. It seems people are mostly oblivious to it until they or their partner or friend has to actually obtain an abortion; and subsequently, they don't talk about it. A surprising number of people don't know that women still have to get the signatures of two doctors to allow them to have a termination. Abortion on request is still a long way off. It's a doctor's decision, not the woman's, whether she will be allowed to have the procedure, and their decision relies on an assessment of the patient's mental health: in order to obtain an abortion, you have to say that you are not mentally able to cope with continuing the pregnancy. You can't simply decide you don't want the pregnancy, you have to cast doubt on your own mental health.

On top of this, in many places in Britain it can be very hard to get an NHS abortion - provision is wildly unequal in different areas - while a private abortion costs £400 and up. Why should women be forced to pay for a medical procedure? Doctors who are actively hostile to abortion don't have to declare their position, and can be obstructive. In Ireland, it's still illegal; women, often very young women (access to sex education and contraception is still problematic over there, too), have to travel to mainland Britain for abortions - around seven thousand a year. Anti-choice groups, with plenty of money and resources, are constantly raising legal and parliamentary threats to the availability of the procedure: putting leaflets through doors, sending speakers into schools for pete's sake, while pro-choice groups struggle to get funds to even keep going. Yet this issue is vital. One in three women in the UK will have an abortion at some time in their lives.

Anti-choice groups are not shy of campaigning, public speaking, lobbying, picketing clinics, and harassing women.

Maybe we're just squeamish? Abortion, I think it's safe to say, is not nice (like any medical procedure), and maybe us Brits just don't like to think about it too hard? Or maybe the constant undercurrent of anti-abortion propaganda has left even pro-choice people, even feminists, feeling unsettled and unsure about the entire issue; so while they may support access to abortion, they're not sure they'd want to actually campaign for it?

This is something the anti-choice groups are counting on. They are not shy of campaigning, public speaking, lobbying, picketing clinics, harassing women. In the US, Bush and his delightful gang of evil henchmen are busy chipping away at reproductive rights. Currently it looks likely that abortion will be made completely illegal there again. The legality of abortion in the States rests on the Roe vs Wade decision, which, it is predicted, will be overturned by the Supreme Court when the balance of judges for or against availability of abortion changes with the next appointee - certain to be a right-wing judge. Already, many new laws and regulations have restricted or effectively removed access for millions of women. Jeb Bush, governor of Florida and brother of George W, recently stepped in personally to try and prevent a severely mentally disabled woman who had been raped from having an abortion. But also in the States, there is a strong, highly organised women's movement resisting these changes. A move to outlaw abortion would cause untold civil unrest.

Don't kid yourself that attacks on the abortion law don't happen here, too: we need people willing to get involved, to campaign to defend and extend the abortion laws. A good first step is to join the main group doing just that, NAC (the National Abortion Campaign): http://nac.gn.apc.org/ - their funding comes solely from member subscriptions and donations, so each person joining up makes a real difference.

A coalition of anti-abortion groups has just announced its intention to raise money for a massive campaign, blitzing the UK media, later this year. If you think reproductive rights are worth defending, now is the time to get organised.

Some info from NAC:

  • One in five pregnancies ends in abortion (Office of National Statistics England & Wales 1999)
  • 70% of women accessing abortion services were using contraception at the time when they got pregnant (Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists 2000)
  • 89% of abortions take place in the first 13 weeks of the pregnancy (ONS England & Wales 1999)
  • Whether a woman can access an abortion on the NHS depends on where she lives. In North Cumbria 97% of abortions are paid for by the NHS, in Solihull only 46% are NHS funded (ONS England & Wales 1999)
  • Nearly half the women having abortions in England and Wales have to pay for them. There are no public funds available specifically to help poorer women in these circumstances
  • There have been nearly 20 attacks on the abortion law since it was passed
  • The 1967 Abortion Act was never extended to Northern Ireland
  • Women in their late teens and early twenties have the highest rate of abortions - 3 out of every 100 women aged 20 to 24 had an abortion in 1998 (ONS England & Wales 1999)
  • 10% of GPs consider themselves to be conscientious objectors. Legally they do not have to declare their view to their patients
  • Abortion is very safe in the UK. It is one of the most commonly performed gynaecological procedures (RCOG 2000)
  • A quarter of the world's population live in areas where abortion is illegal (International Planned Parenthood Federation)
  • 55 million abortions take place world-wide each year; 20 million are unsafe (World Health Organisation 2001)
  • 80,000 women die every year from unsafe abortions (WHO 1999)
  • Most European countries already allow abortion on request, mostly for the first three months. Holland, which has one of the most liberal abortion laws, has the lowest teenage pregnancy and abortion rates in Europe

Non directive counselling, advice and information is available from:

Family Planning Association: 0845 310 1334

FPA provides details of local family planning clinics.

Brook: 0800 0185023

Brook offers free confidential sexual health and pregnancy advice to young people up to the age of 25.

Margaret Pyke Centre: 020 7530 3636

MPC offer contraceptive and pregnancy advice.

'Life' and 'Crisis' centres are opposed to abortion and will not offer unbiased information.

About the author

Andy Roberts

Andy Roberts plays in the band Linus (www.linusland.co.uk) and draws cartoons. He likes that annoying 'Bandages' song. Andy would like to thank Mandy Coates for her assistance with this article.

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