Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Hands off my uterus!

This piece originally appeared on the Fresh Outlook:

The last few months have seen numerous attacks on a woman’s right to choose, both here and in the USA. In preparation for the pro-choice demo on London this Saturday, here are a few thoughts on what’s been happening to our right to bodily autonomy on both sides of the pond.

Women were given the legal right to abortion in 1967 if they lived in England, Scotland or Wales. Abortion has never been legalised in Northern Ireland, and abortion on demand has never been granted to women in Great Britain. A woman needs to get the signatures of two doctors if she wishes to have an abortion, and the doctors have to confirm that continuing with the pregnancy will cause harm to the woman’s mental or physical health. A doctor can refuse to give information about abortion. In 2007, a bill was presented to reduce the upper-time limit (currently 24 weeks) for the procedure. Although it failed to pass, all but one member of the Tory front bench at the time voted in favour of reducing the time limit.

Abortion has always been a thornier issue in the USA, where abortion providers often find their lives at risk, and some have been murdered, by anti-choice activists. One of George Bush’s first acts as President was to re-introduce a gagging order that prevented international aid being given to hospitals or healthcare providers that offered abortion. One of Barack Obama’s first acts was to reverse this gag; however, his presidency has not been free from abortion related controversy. One recent proposed change to USA law included banning abortion unless the pregnancy was a result of a “violent rape”, something that obviously angered feminists. Many conservative states have proposed law changes to ban abortion completely, and this month Kansas - unsuccessfully - tried to shut down abortion providers in the state. A further attack on women’s bodily autonomy has led to cases where women who have miscarried are facing murder charges and life sentences for ‘killing’ their unborn child.

Back to the UK, where Nadine Dorries and Frank Field have proposed a change to current regulations around abortion. They want to force women seeking an abortion to have counselling from what they call “independent counsellors”. By independent, they mean services that do not actually provide abortions, ruling out the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, Marie Stopes International and the NHS. This is in spite of the fact that all of these services already offer unbiased, fair and informative counselling. This change gives anti-choice groups an opportunity to ‘fill this gap’ with counselling that could actively discourage a woman from having an abortion, rather than offering unbiased advice. The Department of Health have given signals that they are considering implementing this change, without it going through a parliamentary vote first.

Basically, what this means, is that a woman’s right to choose could be restricted, without parliament being given the opportunity to vote for it.

If a woman wants counselling before deciding to have an abortion then she has the right to unbiased advice. The accusation that Ms Dorries and Mr Field make, that abortion providers have an ‘interest’ (i.e. financial) in the woman having an abortion, so therefore would encourage her to have one, is ludicrous.

Furthermore, forcing a woman to go through a course of counselling before deciding whether or not to have an abortion, particularly counselling from a potentially anti-choice organisation, is not an option. No-one should be forced to have counselling for starters, but this perpetuates the myth that an abortion is something shaming for a woman, and that she needs help. It suggests that women aren’t able to make this decision themselves, even when they don’t want or need counselling. It also pushes back the date where a woman can have her abortion, leading to it having to happen later in the woman’s pregnancy.

Ms Dorries often reports that women who have an abortion suffer “post abortion trauma syndrome”. This is not backed up by scientific evidence. Of course some women do experience emotional pain, trauma and depression after an abortion. But a lot of women don’t, and the idea that they should feel shame, that it should be kept secret, and that they should behave and react in a certain way underpins a lot of anti-abortion rhetoric and proposals.

In ‘How to be a Woman’, Caitlin Moran talks frankly about her decision to have an abortion. Like many other women, she knows that this is the right decision for her. The operation itself is painful and unpleasant. But fundamentally, the freedom to make the choice, to have bodily autonomy, allowed her to make the decision that was right for her and her family. In ‘The Equality Illusion’ we hear women talk about the relief they felt at making the decision to have a termination. Columnist Zoe Williams has written extensively about the culture of shame and apology that surrounds abortion, which contradicts the way many women actually feel about the procedure. Hearing these stories emphasises how much we need to end this culture of shame around something that affects so many women in the UK.

Abortion is not a decision any woman makes lightly. Whilst some women feel relief and freedom, other women do feel unhappy and depressed. Some women need to have counselling beforehand, and afterwards. Some women don’t. But all women need to have the right to choose to end a pregnancy. All women need to have the right to bodily autonomy. All women need to have the right to choose. Eroding this right, be it by blocking the NHS, Marie Stopes and the BPAS offering counselling, or reducing the upper-time limit, or maintaining a rhetoric of shame and secrecy about abortion, is simply not acceptable.

The Department of Health cannot and must not let this change be implemented without a debate in parliament.

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