In October, a woman was admitted to University Hospital in Galway, Ireland. She was miscarrying the baby she and her husband were so excited to meet. After her repeated requests for a termination were refused on the grounds that Ireland ‘is a Catholic country’, despite the woman in question being neither Irish nor Catholic, that woman died. That woman was Savita Halappananvar, and her death has highlighted the dangers for women when access to abortion is not freely available.
Access to abortion is far better in the UK than Ireland, which is not difficult as Ireland has the strictest abortion rules in Europe – many of which have not changed in over 150 years. But we cannot allow ourselves be complacent about abortion rights in the UK, both medically and legally. Current abortion laws effectively force women to persuade doctors that they are suffering from mental health issues surrounding their pregnancy in order to be “granted” (and I hate the use of that term in itself) an abortion. And whilst Nadine Dorries’ backdoor attempt to restrict access to abortion in 2011, which would have “stripped non-statutory abortion providers from offering counselling to women” and opened the door to pro-life influenced groups to provide counselling, was heavily defeated in the Commons, it was still backed by over 100 MPs – including eleven Labour MPs. It still saddens me that a party which is fighting every day for equal rights for our women could have representatives who vote to remove a woman’s right to choose.
It is now more important than ever that we support women across the world in their struggle for reproductive rights and bodily autonomy, whilst simultaneously ensuring that women in the UK keep their right to decide what they do, or do not do, with their bodies. Particularly as the current government seems to want to restrict these rights, with the Health Secretary wanting to half the abortion time limit and the Minister for Women and Equalities (ha!) favouring the restriction of the time limit. Maria Miller, a “modern feminist”, claims to have “looked at it from the really important stance of the impact on women and children”, whilst seemingly ignoring the emotional, physical and financial impact of unwanted pregnancies on women. Hunt and Miller’s views, the latter of which is supported by the Prime Minister, have “deepened fears among pro-choice campaigners that abortion laws are set to come under renewed assault”, especially as David Cameron himself has suggested that “the time could be right for MPs to return to the subject”.
With protests outside abortion clinics increasing dramatically, it is paramount that women are able to make informed decisions in a safe environment, free from judgement or influence in either direction. Labour’s Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry has written to the Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer asking for action to be taken against those protesting outside abortion clinics and for him to ensure laws about intimidation and harassment to be enforced, which is another important step to ensuring our women are protected. The wellbeing of our women is too important to risk pandering to the demands of anti-choice groups.
The campaign to restrict women’s reproductive rights isn’t just limited to the Tories either, as demonstrated. Labour’s anti-choice pressure group – “Labour Life Group / Labour for Life” – held a conference fringe at Manchester last year (but it was disrupted by a strong pro-choice protest) and recently launched a Twitter account (which has since been suspended). How we can fight for women’s rights whilst some amongst us are attempting to restricting them is beyond me. “Labour for Life” has no place in the Labour Party which I know and love. We need a “pro-choice pushback” – pro-choice Labour MPs should be proposing pro-choice motions which would enhance women’s right to choose. It is time for The Labour Party to quash the categorisation of those women who seek abortions as “vulnerable”. There is a stigma surrounding abortion which suggests that women are weak, or they should be ashamed – this is probably why no woman politician has said publicly that they have had an abortion – it was be momentous if they did. Because no woman should ever be ashamed for making an informed decision about their own body. Women should be able to make decisions like that all across the world.
The Irish Health Minister has said that “the government is committed to ensuring that the safety of pregnant women in Ireland is maintained and strengthened” – it is just heartbreaking that it takes the death of a young woman for the Irish government to even open up discussion surrounding abortion laws. In Britain, it took Nadine Dorries.
I am a member of a pro-choice Labour Party. One which fights for a woman’s right to choose. One which supports its women. Because only when I am dead will the government decide what happens to my body. And only then because I am an organ donor.