A historic victory for abortion rights
The vote on Northern Ireland shows how far we’ve come.
The margin of support for Stella Creasy’s imaginative amendment, to commit the UK government to decriminalising abortion in Northern Ireland, does not speak to how views on abortion have changed, it screams it.
Despite the reluctance of Westminster to interfere in Northern Ireland since the collapse of the devolved government, and the reluctance from some to rely on European human-rights rulings to change abortion law in Northern Ireland, the House of Commons approved the amendment to the Northern Ireland Executive Formation Bill by a staggering 332 votes to 99.
For those of us who are committed to good old-fashioned democratic parliamentary debate, this may seem a rather unsatisfactory resolution to a 50-year-long battle. The amendment was made to a technical bill and swiftly voted through. I admit, I’m nostalgic for the days when bills were drafted, scrutinised and redrafted, and amendments were considered and fought for. But that was then: this is now. The past is another country.
Now, in this country, at a time when parliamentary politics is an omnishambles beyond the imaginations of satirical scriptwriters, we change legislation by seizing opportunities. And Stella Creasy MP is a true genius at this. When she takes a cause to heart, she makes change happen. Prior to this, she won funding for women from Northern Ireland to travel to England and have abortions. She did so by challenging the Queen’s Speech. She and Diana Johnson MP have worked with the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas) and other advocates to get the issue of abortion in front of parliament in any way possible. This is the way it’s done today.
This vote is the result of years of discussion and lobbying. Parliament now understands the absurdity of forcing women to travel from one part of the UK to another for a legal, necessary procedure. The British state currently will pay bpas for a woman’s abortion (and her travel costs) if she flies from Belfast to Birmingham, but if bpas flies a doctor from Birmingham to Belfast to provide the abortion pills there, both woman and doctor face jail. You would have to be mind-numbingly stupid to want to maintain this state of affairs. Yesterday’s vote suggests only a small minority of MPs suffer from such stupidity.
But the success of the Creasy amendment also reveals where parliamentary and public opinion now rests on the issue of abortion. Abortion is no longer seen as something that is a shameful failure, something that disgraces the women who seek it and the clinics that provide it. Abortion is increasingly understood as what it is: a safe, necessary back-up to other methods of birth control that should be available when contraception fails, or isn’t used – for whatever reason.
Paradoxically, people on social media talk increasingly about abortion stigma, at a time when abortion is less stigmatised than ever before. Last year, there was a four per cent rise in the number of women who availed themselves of the procedure in England and Wales. These were not ignorant teenagers – the number of abortions provided to younger women fell. The rise in abortions is among older women: women who are married and who have children already and who feel able to choose abortion as a legitimate procedure.
Modern British society has grown up with legal, accessible abortion. People understand that it is part of women’s lives. Broadly speaking, even those who oppose it, because they value the life of the fetus as much as the life of its bearer, accept that the moral choice should be the woman’s. No one wants to argue that women and doctors should be jailed for ending pregnancies.
Thirty-five years ago, when I first started to lobby for women’s right to abortion, legislators in the muddled middle ground would worry about how the Daily Mail, Catholic voters and the anti-abortion lobby would respond to any attempt at change. We were warned not to raise the issue in parliament for fear of losing ground. Sympathetic civil servants cautioned against what we would now describe as ‘poking the bear’. We were told that if we brought abortion on to the floor of the House of Commons, we would lose.
Now, we are that bear, and it’s our opponents who should worry. MPs should not be worried about how constituents will react if they support reproductive choice. Rather, they should be worried about how constituents will react if they do not support reproductive choice. Today, more than 200,000 women avail themselves of abortions each year – every one of them has a family and friends and a social-media network. MPs might want to think twice about suggesting they opted to have an abortion out of ignorance, immorality or fecklessness. Past generations of women may have felt too inhibited to speak out – but not now.
In 2018, abortion was liberalised in the Republic of Ireland. Now it seems that, in 2019, abortion will be decriminalised on the rest of the island of Ireland. The question now is: where next for Britain? I am seeing a future in which abortion is decriminalised and accepted as the essential healthcare procedure that so many of us know it to be.
Join the #WeTrustWomen campaign for the decriminalisation of abortion in Britain.
Picture by: Getty.
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