UK: Mobilise NOW or face the loss of abortion rights Print E-mail
 London -- Tuesday March 15 2005

Sisters, make some noise

Zoe Williams

Cosmopolitan magazine asked Michael Howard, Tony Blair and Charles Kennedy
how they felt about abortion. This is not a question that would have come up
two elections ago, but Cosmo has been running a laudable campaign
highlighting the small but perceptible attacks - none of them legislative,
so far - against abortion rights in this country.

Howard said: "I think what we have now is tantamount to abortion on demand.
In the past, I voted for a reduction in the legal time limit to 22 weeks,
and I would be prepared to go down to 20." Kennedy said: "I don't know what
I'd do now." (He voted for 22 weeks last time.) Blair said he "personally
dislikes the idea of abortion" but has no plans to change the law.

Nobody, in fact, has any plans to change the law. A spokesman for Howard
rushed straight out with a statement denying that the subject "would be
turned into an issue". (In other words: I shall mouth off about it, but not
with a mind to legislating.) So, two-thirds of our prospective leaders would
like to see the legal limit reduced; all three, one tacitly, two openly,
dislike the principle of abortion; two-thirds intend to do nothing;
one-third couldn't quite put his finger on his intention. Imagine, for a
second, receiving those answers to any other issue. "MRSA? Well, I can't say
I like it, but I'm not going to make an issue of it." "Immigration? Not my
cup of tea, but I don't know what I'd do about it." "Single European
currency? Kinda ... it's a tricky one..."

This bizarre, mealy-mouthed tergiversation tells us not very much about the
future of abortion laws, but an awful lot about these politicians. They
don't know who to be more scared of, feminists or middle England. The way in
which they lean with their rhetoric suggests that they're slightly more
scared of middle England, and you know what that means - sisters, we have
not been making enough noise.

Late-term abortion is an absolute non-issue in this country. In America,
where it's much more of a campaigning issue, there is also a marked
correlation between poverty and late-term terminations. The operations
themselves are prohibitively expensive, transport is laughably inadequate,
family planning centres are almost non-existent, and it's not unusual for
the poorest women of that society to reach an advanced state of pregnancy
before they're in a position to terminate.

There is no such correlation here, and late-term abortions are terribly
rare, and generally grounded in a medical impairment discovered in the
foetus. It is simply not the case that the ranks of the pregnant are full of
women thinking, "This foetus could, at a pinch, survive outside my womb, but
sod it, I'm going to kill it anyway."

When politicians talk about it, they categorically are not addressing an
issue that is of practical urgency or even very great significance. It's
merely a signalling device, a way of expressing disapproval to appease
conservative opinion, without expressing it so strongly that pro-abortion
opinion feels moved to rouse itself.

The parameters of the debate are marked out with the specific intention of
not getting into an actual debate. Nobody wants to have the conversation
that goes "Is abortion right or wrong?", since there would be no way of
pacifying whichever branch you alienated with your answer. Instead, this
phoney war is played out over a handful of anomalous, basically irrelevant
cases, deliberately focused on the tipping point at which a foetus could be
a viable person, in order to say, without ever actually saying it, "It's not
very nice, this business, is it?"

What's the correct response, then, from a person who believes in a woman's
right to choose? We could do as we do at the moment, which is ignore it, on
the basis that the legislation probably won't be changed, and even if it is,
the legal time limit is unlikely to drop to a level at which abortion
becomes a practical impossibility.

The danger of this is that we allow in, unchallenged, the view that
termination is a shameful, horrid thing to do; from there, the taboo
surrounding it calcifies, fewer people are prepared to defend it, and if
abortion rights ever were to be seriously undermined, we simply wouldn't
have the muscle, as a movement, to mobilise.

Alternatively, we could force the debate. Michael Howard, what's your
alternative to abortion "on demand"? Abortion at random? Tony Blair, if you
"personally dislike the idea", what does that mean? That you think it's
morally wrong? Charles Kennedy, "I don't know" is not an answer, and it's
certainly not one you would dare to give to any other question.

We have to have the argument that nobody wants to have, before we forget how
it's done.