A “choice” moment

Issue: 159

Tina MacVeigh

A review of Judith Orr, Abortion Wars: The Fight for Reproductive Rights (Policy Press, 2017), £12.99

Abortion is as old as womanhood. Throughout history, abortion has been a necessary and accepted part of women’s lives. However, rights to abortion have been hard fought. Despite significant advances in the legalisation and provision of abortion services, barriers and obstacles still exist that often make it extremely difficult for women to access that care.

Women won the right to vote, the right to work, the right to own property, so why are we still talking about abortion and reproductive rights in the 21st century? Why can’t free contraception and abortion care be made available to all women, regardless of income, ethnicity or socio-economic status? Why does class define what access we have to healthcare and reproductive services? How can we truly have full bodily autonomy and exercise real choice when faced with poverty, homelessness, racism and discrimination?

These are some of the questions Judith Orr addresses in her book Abortion Wars by exploring both current debates about abortion rights and age-old issues of human desire, sexual pleasure and unwanted pregnancies. Orr sets the context for these debates in the current global struggles. Globally, feminism is having a moment—and it is an important one.

In some countries, hard won rights are under attack from conservative political forces. In others, huge pressure is being exerted on governments to introduce major changes. Donald Trump’s ascendancy in the United States has put right wing populist politics on the world stage. His contempt for women’s rights in general and their reproductive rights in particular is evident and ominous, but not unique. Conservative ideas have also gained ground in Poland, France, Spain and the UK. In the US, cuts to funding affect the provision of ­abortion services, while in Britain attempts are being made to introduce laws that, although they would not make abortion illegal, would likely introduce incremental and sometimes hidden barriers to abortion. But alongside the growth of these ideas there is growing a mood of global resistance. Women are saying they aren’t wombs, they are people before they are mothers and they are sick of their bodies being used as political footballs. And while it is poorer and younger women who are hit the hardest, women all over the world face condemnation, discrimination and punishment as long as abortion is not completely free, safe and legal.

Orr looks in detail at the UK and US models, at the history of the fight to win abortion rights and the contemporary challenges to these rights. These are important discussions, illustrating the threat of hidden and unforeseen changes to legislation which undermine access and care. Likewise she highlights how sinister attacks on abortion clinics in the US are putting the wellbeing (and is some cases the lives) of both clients and healthcare professionals at risk. Understanding the challenges in the context of the UK and US serves as a roadmap as much for those defending as those fighting for abortion and reproductive rights.

A look at the recent victory for abortion rights in Ireland perhaps best illustrates the timeliness and relevance of Orr’s book. On Friday 25 May 2018, people in Ireland voted overwhelmingly to remove the 8th Amendment from the Irish Constitution. In a wonderfully fitting reversal of history, 66 percent voted to remove the Amendment—67 percent had voted to insert it in 1983. Women in Ireland have lived under the shadow of the 8th Amendment for 35 years. Not only did it constitute an effective ban on abortion for any reason, equating as it did the life of the unborn to the life of the woman, it also embodied decades of state and church shaming and criminalisation of women.

For all of these 35 years, grassroots feminist movements have campaigned for contraception, for abortion, for the right to information about abortion, for the right to travel to other countries to have an abortion while it was still illegal in Ireland. Of course, the conservative government in Ireland took centre stage in claiming this victory, despite the fact that it voted in a 14-year jail sentence for women who procured or took abortion pills in 2014, and despite the fact that as recently as September 2017 Ireland’s Taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar publicly stated reservations about the introduction of abortion legislation.

It is worth remembering that it was on the shoulders of this grassroots movement that this victory was won. In the years following Savita Halappanavar’s death in October 2012, tens of thousands of women and men poured into the streets on demonstrations and strikes seeking change. Halappanavar, an Indian dentist living in Ireland, had presented to Galway University Hospital. At 17 weeks of pregnancy, she suffered a miscarriage. Despite repeated demands for a termination, she was denied one on the grounds of hospital ethos (Catholic) as a fetal heartbeat was still evident. Decisions by doctors in these situations were clouded by a lack of clarity surrounding a 14-year prison sentence, all because the right to life of the unborn was deemed by the 8th Amendment to have equal status to that of the woman. Savita naturally aborted three days after being admitted to hospital but died four days later from a sepsis that was too out of control to regulate. Savita, so full of life, so excited about a much-wanted pregnancy, died unnecessarily.

After her death, the demand of the revived and exploding pro-choice movement was Repeal of the 8th Amendment. “Repeal” became a powerful symbol for women’s liberation and the right of women to bodily autonomy. Once the referendum was announced in January 2018, ordinary women all over the country set up local Repeal groups and organised in their communities and workplaces. Many of them had never been politically active before. Brave women who had travelled for abortions or couples who had travelled for medical reasons broke the silence by speaking out and telling their horrific stories and exposing the reality of exporting the Irish problem of crisis pregnancies overseas. These peoples’ stories took back the conversation from the lawmakers, politicians and religious leaders.

This is what defeated the conservative bigots, the might of the church institution, the monied pro-life campaigners (most of their funds came from the US), the Orange Order and the alt-right. It was people power. Importantly, it was young people power. In an interivew with Orr for the “Voices from the Frontline” section of the book, Irish activist Sinéad Kennedy estimates that 18 to 25 year olds make up 85 percent of the Repeal movement in Ireland. They drove a movement that manifested in a vote that transcended demography, geography, gender and class. What a victory!

But what does this victory mean? It means that the Irish parliament, the Dáil, will legislate for new rules on abortion—likely to include abortion without restriction in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. At the moment abortion is only available when a woman’s life is at serious risk, and women still face up to 14 years in prison for trying to get an abortion.

Ireland’s stunning referendum victory will make it harder to continue to deny women in Northern Ireland basic rights and represents a beacon of hope for women all over the world, particularly in countries where highly repressive regimes exist and others such as Poland and the US where there have been attempts to roll back on rights gained through grassroots struggle. However, while Irish women have earned the right to reproductive healthcare and abortion at home, women still face many barriers to having real bodily autonomy and choice.

There is still homelessness, there is still a gender pay gap, there are barriers to health and to childcare, to education, barriers to providing us with real choice. We continue to be under-represented in social, economic and cultural life. On the wings of this victory for people power, the fight must begin for quality healthcare where women are able to access abortion services on demand. Activists will need to fight the state tooth and nail for proper investment into women’s hospitals, sexual health clinics and specialised abortion services. We also have to continue the fight for an Ireland that gives women a real right to choose, the right to choose to have a family as well as not to continue a pregnancy. And we must take this struggle to the North of Ireland where a battle too is being waged and where our victory will now make it ever more difficult for the Tory government to deny abortion rights to our sisters there.

This is exactly the direction Orr points us to—a call to arms to engage in the struggle for real abortion rights through decriminalisation, wholesale provision by the public healthcare system of woman-led reproductive care, including access to abortion and socio-economic equality. This book should be read by any and all activists involved in the struggle for abortion rights for all women.

Rights gained through decades of struggle continue to be attacked by rabid anti-abortion groups. Highly conservative forces are gaining political momentum and they are determined to retrench women’s reproductive rights. Orr quite clearly sets out what is at stake. In those countries where conservative forces have gained political momentum, there is a threat not only to women’s reproductive rights and services, but also to the very fabric of our socio economic realm. Access to abortion is still affected by class, and the class struggle is at the heart of the abortion rights movement. There is no doubt that conservatives in power will attack not just reproductive rights, but housing rights, health and education rights and the right to a job. Those on the left must locate themselves at the very heart of the resistance to any attacks on abortion rights, and they must also make the case for and mobilise to defend against conservative attacks on our standard of living.

In countries such as Ireland, where abortion rights are being won for the first time, this book clearly sets out the risks of how the appearance of a legalised system can be deceptive. Economic, geographic and bureaucratic barriers will still serve to prevent full free, safe and legal access to abortion and reproductive services for many women, especially working class and minority groups. In these countries advocates and activists must hold their ground and fight hard for legislation that takes account of potentially discriminatory barriers.

New legislation will face the same battleground as the old. It must not criminalise and it must not discriminate. It must be accessible for all and delivered in a state-funded healthcare system, fully removed of any influence by the church. It must be accompanied by the provision of sex education, an openness and honesty about sexuality and sex for pleasure, and free contraception. And most of all, it must trust women to make the right choice for themselves. This is a healthcare issue that should not be subject to the vagaries of electoral politics.

The most important message of Orr’s book is a warning to women everywhere. This is an important moment in the struggle for equality. But it is one of many moments in what will be a permanent struggle, an abortion war as the title suggests. Women’s rights will always be under attack from conservative forces. They want to control society by controlling women’s lives and our bodies. We must stay organised and united and in solidarity with women all over the globe. Our fight for and defence of reproductive rights must include the struggle for real choice. For if we have won real choice we have secured our rights to an income, housing, education, childcare and healthcare. And our brothers will have won this, for they are in the struggle too. And as the song says, the rising of the women means the rising of us all.

Tina MacVeigh is a People Before Profit Councillor on Dublin City Council. She is a community worker and activist and long-standing member of the Irish Socialist Workers Party (now the Socialist Workers Network). In addition to campaigning for a woman’s right to choose, she campaigns for housing rights and is one of the founders of the National Homeless and Housing Coalition.