The fight for abortion rights today

Issue: 153

Judith Orr

Abortion has rarely been out of the headlines in 2016. Women have been leading an unprecedented surge of resistance to attacks on already limited rights to access to abortion. Mass protests at both ends of Europe, on its western shores in Ireland and in the east in Poland, took to the streets this autumn. In the US a million women march is planned at the time of Donald Trump’s inauguration as president in January in protest at the threat to reproductive rights posed by his incoming administration. In his first interview as president-elect Trump made it clear he would stick to his threats to curb abortion rights. Though in the past he has claimed to be pro-choice he played to the anti-abortion lobby and evangelical congregations to win votes.

The dirty secret that is the effective illegality of abortion in one part of the UK, Northern Ireland, has also been getting greater exposure. There have been a number of legal cases and a growing mood of anger.1 The announcement by Scotland’s first minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon in November 2016 that she will look into the possibility of providing NHS abortions for women from Northern Ireland is a sign of changing times. Though it should be noted that women in Scotland, where the NHS carries out almost all abortions, can in general only access abortions up to 18 weeks. Women needing terminations after that time, a restriction that has no basis in law, must travel to England where Scotland’s NHS will pay the bill and refund travel if you know how to apply.2

In southern Ireland, where abortion is effectively banned by the Eighth Amendment to the constitution, there is a sense that the tide might be turning. A demonstration in Dublin of more than 30,000 people on 24 September “more than tripled the numbers from the year before, which itself had at least double the numbers from the year before that…the size of the crowd, its youth, enthusiasm and determination surpassed most people’s expectations”.3 In Poland women also staged a one-day strike on 3 October—“Black Monday”—in the battle to stop a socially conservative right wing government tearing up already severely restrictive laws on abortion. If the government’s plans had been successful they would have left no access to legal abortion whatsoever.

The new activism is in part a symptom of the renaissance in activity and debates about women’s oppression. It is also a sign of the gaping mismatch between the reality of women’s role in society today and backward looking laws and ideology that seek to control women and their bodies. In some cases this has been driven by the politicisation of the issue by the right which sees social issues such as abortion as a way to whip up its base. The imposition of austerity has also led to severe cuts in public services and welfare benefits that particularly affect working class women and their reproductive choices.

In recent years pro-choice activists increasingly frame the issue of abortion as one of human rights. A number of legal cases have been brought from Ireland north and south and elsewhere on the basis that being denied safe and legal abortion is in contravention of human rights law. There has also been an explosion in the alternative provision of abortion services. The wider availability of pills for medical abortion has enabled organisations such as to supply them and to give online medical advice to women internationally where abortion is illegal or difficult to access.


When Irish revolutionary James Connolly said that partition in Ireland would mean a “carnival of reaction both north and south” he could have been talking about the appalling situation for women seeking abortions on both sides of the border.4

For decades many thousands of women from across Ireland have made the journey to cities in England to have abortions. The Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) calculates that between January 1980 and December 2015 at least 165,400 women and girls travelled from the Republic of Ireland to access abortion services in Britain.5 Such figures are always an underestimate as women may avoid giving an Irish address in order to protect their privacy. The IFPA also stated in May 2016 that the figure for 2015 showed that “3,451 women and girls provided addresses from the Republic of Ireland at abortion clinics in England and Wales, a decrease of 7.6 percent on 2014.” However, IFPA chief executive Niall Behan pointed out that the decrease did not necessarily mean fewer women were seeking abortions because, “while it is impossible to quantify the extent of their use, abortion pills accessed online have had a significant impact on the decline in the number of women in Ireland seeking abortion services in the UK”.6

But the pressure for fundamental change is building up. There is a sense that in Ireland the tide is turning in favour of liberalisation of the law. Some activists point to the stunning victory in the 2015 referendum legalising equal marriage as proof of how Ireland has changed. Increasingly people are willing to openly state that they have travelled to get an abortion, seeing silence as allowing the Irish state to turn its back on the problem. Some making the journey to England for an abortion have “live tweeted” their journeys and attendance at an abortion clinic, making public what is often a private and secret experience.7

The tens of thousands who marched in Dublin in September are the most visible evidence of the latest struggle. They are part of a growing and broad campaign calling for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment which equates the life of a pregnant woman with that of an unborn foetus. More than 65 groups make up the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth, “including women’s rights and reproductive rights groups, civil and health rights advocates, trade unions and left-wing political parties”.8

In fact the anniversary of the Easter Rising, after which the British executed Connolly, has been used to galvanise the movement. It has been coined a new Rising for full rights for all citizens. The September demonstration organised by the Abortion Rights Campaign was named as the Rise and Repeal protest. The Irish government has tried to pacify the movement with its move to establish a Citizens’ Assembly to discuss and make recommendations about abortion law. But pro-choice organisations are demanding more immediate action and don’t want to see legal changes being indefinitely delayed, or as the Irish saying goes, “put on the long finger”.

The Eighth Amendment is a result of a referendum in 1983 when 67 percent supported calls to change the constitution to effectively ban abortion. The amendment means that when a woman becomes pregnant she immediately loses the right to autonomy over her own body. But the evidence is that public opinion has shifted markedly since then. An Amnesty International poll in February 2016 found that the “overwhelming majority of people in Ireland want access to abortion expanded (87 percent) and abortion decriminalised (72 percent)…on many questions, there were progressive views on abortion across all regions and socio-economic groups”.9

They also found that 66 percent consider it “hypocritical” that the constitution bans abortion in Ireland but allows women to travel abroad for an abortion. As many as 72 percent believe that the fact that women must travel for abortions unfairly discriminates against those who cannot afford to or are unable to travel, with 55 percent describing Ireland’s abortion laws as “cruel and inhumane”. As for the impact of Catholicism the survey showed that “82 percent of those who consider themselves religious agreed that their religious views should not be imposed on others”.10 This demonstration of the declining hold of the church is a product of women’s changed expectations of their lives. But the church’s credibility has also been seriously undermined by the exposure of enormous scandals of child abuse and cover-ups over many decades. It faces contradictory internal pressures about how to maintain influence. On the one hand there are those who favour accommodation to the expanding expectations of women, many of whom are part of the church’s congregation, on the other are those who want to drive through a more dogmatic approach. The pope’s announcement that he was giving priests the power to “forgive” women who have had abortions is a sign of these tensions. Until this year women who had had an abortion, still described in the announcement as a “grave sin”, could only be forgiven by bishops.

Halpin and O’Grady analysed the trends in public opinion among a number of polls over time and write that “we see support of 64 percent…rising…to 74 percent respectively for repeal…with opposition to repeal falling from 25 percent…to 18 percent”.11

Challenges to laws on abortion in Ireland have in part been stimulated by reactions to high-profile cases. Until the X case in 1992 women were barred from even receiving information on abortion, and also from travelling to another country to have one. The case involved a 13-year-old girl who had suffered rape and who was stopped from travelling to England for an abortion. The Irish Supreme Court overturned the bar on her travel but the outrage the case provoked meant that the momentum for at least minimal change in the law was unstoppable. A referendum then changed the constitution so that the Eighth Amendment couldn’t be used to deny women the right to travel.

Then in 2012 Savita Halappanavar died after being denied a life-saving abortion in a hospital in Galway when she fell ill at 17 weeks of pregnancy. When news broke vigils and protests took place across Ireland and internationally. The legal response in Ireland to Savita’s death led to the end of the Offences against the Persons Act of 1861, a relic of British imperialist rule. In its place came the current law, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013, which allowed abortion when a women’s life is at risk or where there is a risk of suicide. But lengthy “guidelines” published by the government shortly after the law was put in place were revealing.12 They showed that it was rarely going to allow the act to be interpreted in a way that would permit women, even in the exceptional circumstances described, to access legal abortion. In fact the IFPA described the guidelines as appearing “more restrictive than the Act”. They begin with reiterating that abortion is a criminal offence and go on to describe the labyrinth of hurdles any women would have to go through to be allowed to terminate her pregnancy.

In order to access an abortion under the law a woman may face between three and seven different doctors and psychiatrists to judge whether an abortion is justified. Research by the Irish Times found that a third of all psychiatrists in Ireland rejected the view that a woman should be granted an abortion if she is suicidal. This means in practice the law offers no protection for even the most vulnerable women.13

This was proved by yet another appalling case in 2014. A young refugee in Ireland who had been raped in her own country was refused an abortion, at eight weeks of pregnancy, even though she was reportedly suicidal. She went on hunger strike in desperation, but she was medically force-fed until undergoing a legally enforced caesarian without her consent at 25 weeks. The baby was taken into care.

These cases are the public ones, the tragedies resulting from the most extreme circumstances. They rightly cause loud and public outcry. But at the other end of the scale are the women every single day who make the journey across the Irish Sea, going through the tough scrabble for money, booking flights and on return the excuses for being away from work and fear of health complications that might lead to questioning. All because they are deemed criminals in their own country for wanting to exercise their reproductive rights.

Ireland has largely ignored international pressure to change its stance. In May 2016 the United Nations Human Rights Council declared that Ireland needed to lift its ban on abortion in May 2016 as part of its Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Of the 19 recommendations made only one was accepted by Ireland: “a recommendation by Switzerland that the government engage with all the relevant stakeholders in determining whether the legal framework surrounding abortion could be broadened”.14 Ireland had previously rejected all such recommendations in 2011.

The other carnival of reaction across the border in Northern Ireland sees women and doctors facing a possible life sentence under the 1861 Act for procuring or taking part in an illegal abortion. The 1967 Abortion Act was never extended to Northern Ireland. An act that allowed abortion to save a woman’s life—the 1929 Infant Life (Preservation) Act—was extended to Northern Ireland in 1945. The Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights (SACHR) issued a public consultation document on the issue of abortion in June 1993 which stated that, in fact, the law in Northern Ireland was “so uncertain that it violates the standards of international human rights law”.15 In March 2016 the Northern Ireland executive published a new set of guidelines, which state that abortion is only legal if a woman’s life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious risk to her mental or physical health.

Approximately 2,000 women travel from Northern Ireland to England every year for abortions. Northern Ireland is part of the UK, women there pay the same taxes and the same national insurance, and in every other area of healthcare they are treated by the NHS, yet they are denied legal and safe abortions, and when they travel to the rest of the UK they are also denied the right to an abortion provided by the NHS. Instead they are forced to pay often high sums for a private termination. This makes Sturgeon’s intervention an important development.

Pro-choice campaigners have exposed the hypocrisy of the British government when it deliberates about other countries’ abortion restrictions while ignoring anti-abortion law in Northern Ireland:

The Department for International Development (DFID), in a range of publications, has indicated that it considers safe and legal abortion a human right… The DFID supports safe abortion on two grounds. First, it is a right. Women have the right to reproductive health choices. Second, it is necessary…in a humane and just society women and adolescent girls must have the right to make their own decisions about their sexual and reproductive well being.16

In November 2015 the high court in Northern Ireland ruled that the laws on abortion in Northern Ireland breached the European Convention on Human Rights specifically for women who had been raped or in cases of severe foetal abnormality. Judge Justice Horner, hardly a revolutionary militant, stated that the law was in breach of human rights law and “smacks of one law for the rich and one law for the poor.” The Northern Ireland executive has appealed this ruling and is awaiting a decision from the court of appeal. A vote to widen access in such cases was lost in Stormont in early 2016.

But, just as in the South, public opinion in support of change is moving faster than the politicians and establishment. An Amnesty International poll in September 2016 showed that almost 60 percent of people in Northern Ireland believe abortion should be decriminalised. When people were asked about women who were pregnant as a result of rape, or women carrying a foetus that could not survive outside the womb, support for the right to abortion went up to 75 percent.17

For women who discover that their foetus has severe abnormality doctors in Northern Ireland may recommend an abortion but not actually offer one. Because in such cases a woman’s pregnancy may be too far advanced to be medically terminated with pills, such women are forced to travel to a strange city and clinic often at a time of great grief at the prospect of losing a wanted pregnancy and to pay many hundreds of pounds for an abortion. Couples sometimes want to bury the remains back home and have been known to be left with no alternative but to carry them back in a picnic cool bag. Women often travel back immediately after an abortion to avoid the costs of staying in England with implications for their aftercare if there are complications.

Only months after Judge Horner’s statement in April 2016 a woman received a three-month jail sentence after buying pills online to induce an abortion at 10-12 weeks of pregnancy. She was 19 at the time. She had tried to raise the money to travel to England to have what would have been a perfectly legal termination but couldn’t raise enough so bought pills online instead. She was reported to the police by housemates. She was punished not just because she was a woman with an unwanted pregnancy in a country where abortion is illegal. She was also punished because she was poor.

In protest at the sentence a number of pro-choice activists collectively went to police stations in Northern Ireland and handed themselves in declaring that they had either taken or procured pills on the internet and so should also be prosecuted.18 But the police declined to charge any of them. They obviously feared the bad publicity a well organised campaign could generate in contrast to the prosecution of an isolated young woman who simply tried to solve the problem of an unwanted pregnancy in the only way she was able.


Opinions are also changing on the other side of Europe. The attacks on abortion rights in Poland in 2016 were not the first, but what was different was the defiant response they provoked. It began on 4 April 2016 when hundreds of women, and men, walked out of Polish churches when priests read out the Catholic Church’s support for the new legislation. Video clips of examples of this public rejection of the dominant religious institution in Poland went viral. But the strike and demonstrations on “Black Monday”, when an estimated 100,000 people took part in pro-choice demonstrations, was a watershed moment. Protests took place across Poland including in Warsaw, Gdańsk, Łódź, Wrocław and Kraków. Many who didn’t strike wore black in solidarity with the protest. In an eyewitness report a Polish socialist wrote that “People brought hundreds of placards and banners with slogans including, “My body, my choice”, “Fuck off fanatics”, “Girls will overthrow the government”.19 The trade union movement also moved to support the protests “the OPZZ trade union federation backed the protests today. This followed the ZNP teachers’ union, Poland’s largest single union, coming out in support”.20

Opposition was so widespread that even the Catholic Church backed away from support for the legislation. It apparently finally balked at the clause that would have punished women who had undergone an illegal abortion. Leading pro-choice activist Krystyna Kacpura, director of the Federation for Women and Family Planning, wrote that the church judged that women “make up the majority of the people who attend mass and give money”, and decided they couldn’t afford to totally alienate them.21 The government did a U-turn within days although a new and only slightly less draconian amendment was quickly composed provoking yet more protests.

Poland’s Minister of Science and Higher Education, Jarosław Gowin, a member of the right wing ruling Law and Justice Party, said that the government changed its mind about backing the changes because the protests had “caused us to think and taught us humility”. The draft law would have outlawed all abortions in Poland, with jail sentences for women who had abortions and medical staff who helped them. The proposed change would have made it as difficult to get an abortion in Poland as in the Vatican or Malta, which have the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.

The protests have opened the potential not only to push back further restrictions but also to challenge the pitiful legal provision women currently have under Polish law. Kacpura reported that more people visited her organisation’s office in June and July 2016 than in the previous 25 years.22 This is a sign that increasing numbers of women are no longer willing to suffer in silence, or to be forced to travel outside of Poland to access an abortion.

Poland’s current laws allow abortion only where the woman’s life is in danger; where there is a risk of serious and irreversible damage to the foetus; or where the pregnancy is as a result of rape or incest. This latter condition has to be verified by a prosecutor. This means that the vast majority of abortions that take place in Poland, even without the new law, are illegal. Poland has a population of 38.5 million yet there are only 1-2,000 legal terminations recorded every year. This compares with 185,824 abortions in 2015 in Britain with a population of just over 63 million. Some estimate that the number of illegal abortions in Poland could be as many as 150,000.

In reality so many doctors refuse to do even legal abortions, citing conscientious objection, that the ability to access a legal abortion is even more difficult than the law’s conditions would indicate. Kacpura said her organisation hears of “at least two or three such cases every day”. She points out the hypocrisy of doctors claiming conscientious objection as their reason for not carrying out legal procedures, because “some doctors make this objection in their work at public hospitals while continuing to provide abortions at high prices in their private practice”.23

Contraception in Poland is expensive and sometimes hard to access. A report in 2012 showed that a number of Polish doctors and increasingly also pharmacies were using the cover of conscientious objection to defend their refusal to prescribe or even stock the morning after pill, which is available only by prescription.24

Italy, the US and Britain

But abortion rights are not just an issue in the parts of Europe, Poland and Ireland, where the laws are among some of the most restrictive. In Italy Valentina Milluzzo died in October 2016 in a hospital in Sicily after anti-abortion doctors refused her a termination even after one of the twins she was carrying died in the womb and she went into septic shock. Abortion has been legal in Italy since 1978.

One aspect in common among these European countries is the dominance of the Catholic Church. But it would be a mistake to see anti-abortion laws and ideology as simply a Catholic issue as the situation in the United States shows. In the US legal abortion, made possible by the 1973 Roe vs Wade court decision, was already facing regular challenges by state legislatures attempting to reverse the ruling. But it has now been given a dangerous new impetus by Donald’s Trump’s victory in the presidential election.

Trump claimed in the final televised presidential election debate with Hillary Clinton that “If you go with what Hillary is saying, in the ninth month, you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby.” Like so many of Trump’s lies this was challenged in the aftermath of the debate. But that was too late to stop the sort of lurid scenario so beloved of the anti-abortion camp getting a platform in front of a TV audience of over 70 million. Now with Trump’s election these views will be given even more of a profile.

Trump’s vice-president Mike Pence, governor of Indiana, is virulently anti-abortion and signed into law eight pieces of anti-abortion legislation in four years.25 Pence declared on the campaign trail in June 2016 that his and Trump’s plans would see “Roe vs Wade consigned to the ash heap of history where it belongs”.26 Pro-choice campaigners launched the Periods for Pence (now Periods for Politicians) protest which encouraged women to regularly contact Pence’s office with details of their periods as he is seemingly so concerned with the contents of their wombs. The planned January demonstration has transport booked from across the US; the widespread support it is gaining shows how much people fear the clock being turned back on reproductive rights.

There is the very real prospect of a renewed assault on women’s rights, funding cuts for Planned Parenthood—the main provider of family planning advice and services in the US—as well as cuts to foreign aid budgets that include the provision of reproductive health services. Planned Parenthood report a surge in donations in a show of solidarity. Abortion rights has been a visible issue on the militant anti-Trump protests that swept the US after the election with many protesters carrying placards defending a woman’s right to choose.

Women are still denied the right to control their fertility across swathes of the globe. The lack of abortion rights in Latin America was exposed by the impact of the Zika virus over the past year, with some countries continuing to ban or restrict abortion despite the discovery that the virus led to foetal abnormalities and babies being born with microcephaly. The World Health Organisation estimates that globally at least 48,000 women die every year as a result of unsafe abortions.27

But even in England, Scotland and Wales, covered by the 1967 Abortion Act, women do not have abortion on demand, whatever the anti-abortion camp might wail. In fact a woman’s right to choose is conditional and constrained, and abortion is still illegal under the Offences against the Person Act 1861. Under this archaic act a woman who has an abortion or someone who helps her “shall be liable to be kept in penal servitude for life”.28 The 1967 Act created exceptions detailing when doctors could carry out an abortion without being prosecuted under the 1861 Act if specific conditions were met.

So the right to safe and legal abortion, which was one of the early demands of the second wave Women’s Liberation Movement in the US and Britain, is still to be met. In 2017 Abortion Rights activists in Britain aim to use the 50 year anniversary of the Abortion Act to highlight the huge advance it represented but also that the fight for safe and legal abortion on demand is still to be won.29

Conscientious objection

The death of Valentina Milluzzo in an obstetrics and gynecology hospital in Sicily despite abortion being legal is a warning of how conscientious objection can undermine women’s legal rights. In Sicily 87.6 percent of gynaecologists refuse to perform the procedure citing conscientious objection. Research by pro-choice Italian doctor Silvana Agatone found that only 1,200 gynaecologists out of over 10,000 in Italy perform abortions. She and many other pro-choice doctors are nearing retirement and she worries about the rise in the numbers of young doctors claiming conscientious objection. In some regions women cannot find anyone prepared to perform an abortion. In response the Italian Association for Demographic Education sends pro-choice doctors to parts of the country where women could not otherwise have an abortion.30 For example, once a week doctors travel from Milan or Rome to Ascoli Piceno in east-central Italy to perform abortions in the city hospital where there is not a single gynaecologist who will terminate a pregnancy.

Penalty fines for women in Italy found to have obtained an illegal abortion have gone up from 50 to 10,000 euro. Doctors report that the number of miscarriages is rising because more women are having illegal abortions. Dr Agatone told the Guardian that the increased fines mean women fear seeking treatment: “now if a woman risks being denounced for an illegal abortion, she will stay at home even if she is not well. This is very dangerous”.31 Italy’s biggest trade union CGIL filed a petition on the issue to the Council of Europe in 2013. Its unanimous judgement published in 2016 stated that Italy “was violating women’s rights to health”.32

Doctors in Britain can use conscientious objection to justify refusing to carry out abortions, a provision built into the 1967 Abortion Act. Two Scotland midwives lost a case in the Supreme Court in 2014 when they tried to expand the law. They wanted to avoid even being involved with other staff who might be caring for women who were having an abortion.33 One Marie Stopes study in 2007 found that 20 percent of GPs described themselves as “anti-abortion” although not all of these refuse to refer women for abortions. Marie Stopes calculates that around 10 percent of GPs in Britain exercise conscientious objection.34

There is worrying evidence of a growing number of younger doctors refusing to take part in abortions.35 The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists stated almost ten years ago that it was aware of a “slow but growing problem of trainees opting out of training in the termination of pregnancy and is therefore concerned about the abortion service of the future”.36 This may be caused by the stigma that still surrounds abortion—it is not a prestigious specialty. But it may also reflect that abortion is not as valued as vital life-saving health provision by generations who have no experience or memory of the suffering and deaths caused by backstreet abortions.


The issue of abortion is not going to go away. Where the populist and far-right make advances, attacks on abortion rights look likely to be a part of assaults on the gains of recent decades. But, as Poland shows, even in societies where abortion rights are minimal any new attack can provoke significant clashes and mobilisations. Women are expected to be financially independent, they assume they have political rights to shape public policy, and they are showing they are sick of their bodies being used as political footballs.

Abortion is a key part of the right’s ideological agenda because of the centrality of the role of the family and women’s role within it as child-bearer and carer. This role is central to the material basis for women’s oppression.37 Mainstream conservative politicians also spout off about the “traditional” values of the family when they want to limit women’s rights. But attempts to impose extreme restrictions on abortion rights do not represent the interests and agenda of the majority of the capitalist class whose pursuit of profit relies on an ever growing flexible workforce of which women form a large part. But, just like the mainstream politicians’ attacks on immigrants, the latest generation of right wing populists push such views a step further. At a further extreme are the fascist parties. The former leader of the fascist Front National Jean-Marie Le Pen, father of the current leader Marine, has described abortion as “anti-French genocide”. Marine Le Pen has tried to rebrand the FN and soften its public image. But her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, France’s youngest MP when elected at 22, is unequivocal. She is vocal in her opposition to publically funding family planning clinics saying they are “peddling abortion as something that’s run-of-the-mill”.

History shows that whatever the law and whatever the society, women have attempted to control their fertility by any means they can access. The advances of contraception, where it is available and affordable, have been liberating in allowing sex to be separated from procreation. Its use is widespread and accepted in all but the most repressive societies. However, abortion continues to be portrayed in ruling ideology as an aberration from women’s “natural” instincts and at best a necessary evil. In everyday popular culture such as Eastenders it is always depicted negatively. Such is the impact of the ideology surrounding the family and women’s sexuality that even in countries where abortion is legal and has majority support it still carries a certain amount of social stigma.

Despite this, public support for the right to legal abortion across Europe, is high. An Ipsos poll of 23 countries in early 2016 found that British positive attitudes to abortion came third, after Sweden and France, with 62 percent saying that a woman should be able to have an abortion “if she decides she wants one”.38 All the major trade unions in Britain support a woman’s right to choose, and Britain’s biggest ever pro-choice demonstration, when 80,000 marched in 1979, was organised by the TUC.

As with every other aspect of women’s oppression, access to reproductive rights cannot be fully understood without reference to class. The TUC march mobilised those numbers in 1979 because so many trade unionists recognised that anti-abortion laws disproportionally affected working class women. In every society or historical period wealthy women have always been able to access the best abortion services available. Before 1967 in Britain a woman could go to an amenable psychiatrist who would confirm that—in line with the Bourne judgment of 1938—the continuance of the pregnancy will “make the woman a physical or mental wreck”.39 She would then be referred to a doctor for a legal private operation. Today it means that if you have the money you can travel to get a legal abortion across the borders of countries that deny the right.

The ease of medical abortions using pills and the ability to access them online has revolutionised abortion access. The internet has often been described as the new backstreet, but this virtual backstreet is a much safer one than the literal one of the past for many women with no other options. But why should women have to go underground to access healthcare? Why can’t women in the 21st century access an abortion at a local doctor’s surgery or clinic as easily as arranging a cervical smear or breast screening as part of their general healthcare provision?

These are the questions that many women, and men, are asking. Yet it’s clear that the battle for a woman’s right to choose is still one that will have to be hard fought. Anti-abortion campaigners in Britain have adapted their propaganda to the political climate. Few now declare outright opposition to abortion. Instead arguments to curtail access are often framed in “progressive” language. Enforced counselling is portrayed as empowering women’s health choices. The moral panic created by the false allegations that some ethnic minorities were practising sex selection abortions was posed as defending women’s rights, because it was claimed that female foetuses were being disproportionally aborted.40

These attacks have been beaten back, but there will be more to come. Pro-choice campaigners have to keep returning to the central argument—any politician, doctor or ideologue who tells a woman that she must carry an unwanted pregnancy to term is by definition acting in opposition to women’s rights. Such an imposition can never be glossed over as progressive. Every woman must be able to choose what she does with her own body, including when or if to have a child. This is a fundamental right. Without this ability to control our fertility women will never be able to play a full and equal role in society.

Judith Orr is the author of Marxism and Women’s Liberation and is currently writing a new book on the struggle for abortion rights.


2 Pearson, 2015.

3 Halpin and O’Grady, 2016, p3.

4 Connolly, 1914.

6 Irish Family Planning Association, 2016.

8 Halpin and O’Grady, 2016, p3.

9 Amnesty International, 2016a.

10 Amnesty International, 2016a.

11 Halpin and O’Grady, 2016, p4.

13 O’Regan, 2013.

14 Fitzgerald, 2016.

16 Department for International Development, 2009, quoted in Horgan and O’Connor, 2014.

17 Amnesty International, 2016b.

18 Gentleman, 2016.

19 Zebrowski, 2016.

20 Zebrowski, 2016.

21 Kacpura, 2016a.

22 Kacpura, 2016b.

23 Kacpura, 2016b.

24 Kacpura, Więckiewicz, Jawień, Grzywacz and Zimniewska, 2013, p32.

25 Berg, 2016.

26 Livengood and Ferretti, 2016.

30 Pianigiani, 2016.

31 Kirchgaessner, Duncan, Nardelli and Robineau, 2016.

32 European Committee of Social Rights, 2016.

33 Brooks, 2014.

34 Marie Stopes International, 2007.

35 Strickland, 2011.

36 Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, 2007.

37 Orr, 2016.

38 Ipsos, 2016.

39 The Bourne judgment is based on the 1938 prosecution of leading gynecologist Aleck Bourne who carried out an abortion on a 14-year-old who had suffered multiple rape. He publicised his defiance of the law hoping that a winning case would set a precedent. His victory opened the way for a broader definition for legal abortions. The judgment is still a precedent in Northern Ireland.

40 Orr, 2015.


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