Donald Trump really has a way with words doesn’t he? As the news that Supreme Court judge Anthony Kennedy was retiring, women’s hearts raced. This is the Hand Maid’s Tale-esque moment American women had feared since the news broke that Trump had beaten Hillary: it is the right’s chance to undo Roe versus Wade: the landmark ruling that legalised abortion in America.
What has Trump said about it? Simply, when it comes to replacing Kennedy he plans to pick ‘a great one’ who, presumably, will be about as great as America is right now under his watch. Perhaps ‘great’ for Trump is a bit like ‘Brexit’ for Theresa May – a catch all phrase for something chaotically bad.
If there is one political issue which serves as a reminder of the fact that despite the ubiquity of feminism, #MeToo and #TimesUp, when it comes to women’s bodies politics has a lot of catching up to do it is abortion.
That issue is abortion. Arguably, 2018 has, so far, been that year that abortion has constantly been in the news, made headlines and sparked serious international debates. Some of it has been good. In Ireland a long campaign to repeal the 8th amendment was successful, in Argentina abortion is closer to being legalised than ever before and Wales announced they would be following Scotland’s lead by listening to experts and allowing women to take abortion pills at home., meaning that Welsh women who have early abortions will no longer be forced to experience heavy bleeding while they make their way home from the clinic.
But, some of it has been very, very bad. Of course, in the United States, there’s the right’s hand-wringing and rampant desire to undo Roe Vs Wade coupled Trump’s maliciously glib attitude to it all. And then, here, in the United Kingdom, the referendum on abortion in Ireland has forced us to take a serious look at how easy it is for women to access abortions in the United Kingdom.
The answer, resoundingly, has been: not as easy as it should be. If Ireland’s referendum was a public opinion test there, for the United Kingdom it was a test of how liberal we really are. We have hardly aced it, we failed to get the grades needed to call ourselves an equal society.
In response to calls from all over the political spectrum in Westminster, Theresa May remained firm and insisted that she would not interfere with abortion laws in Northern Ireland where it is currently completely illegal. She could but she won’t or, rather, she can’t because, politically, it would damage her. The Prime Minister cannot afford to upset the DUP, who remain steadfastly anti-abortion.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Jeremy Hunt has refused to extend the courtesy of at-home abortion to English women. This puts England’s abortion regulation far behind Scotland and Wales. Pressure is mounting on him to change the law from, well, pretty much everyone who knows what they’re talking about. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists agree that all of the evidence confirms that it is completely safe and makes total sense for women to take the medication in the comfort of their own home.
So, why hasn’t Hunt budged? When I wonder about this I think about the friend I accompanied to an abortion clinic at 17 years-old. I think about the 45-minute train journey we took home after she had taken the medication, I think about the pain she was in, I remember the fear she had that she would bleed through her clothes, I remember telling her not to worry about that but also being scared it would happen and I see the furrows on her faced as she dealt with being in pain and tried not to squirm too much.
Misoprostol, the abortion pill, is one of the safest medicines on this Earth according to the World Health Organisation. This decision – to force women to take it in a clinical setting – has nothing to do with the medicine. It has everything to do with a law which is now 50 years old and the fact that some politicians don’t like to get involved with abortion.
When the 1967 Abortion Act came into force, all abortions were surgical. Medical abortions using only pills didn’t even exist yet.
The problem is not abortion, it is politics and a fear of public opinion. Abortion is deeply personal but it is also deeply political. It is one of the few political issues that slices right through the noise, cutting right to the centre of who we really are.
The last time there was a major vote in Westminster on abortion it was 2008. This was a time also known as BB (Before Brexit). MPs had the opportunity to reduce abortion limits from 24 weeks but, fortunately, it was opposed by a reasonably slim margin of 71 votes.
That year even supposed Tory modernisers like David Cameron voted to reduce the limit from 24 to 20 weeks. If this had gone ahead, it would have been a significant cut because in 1990 limits were reduced from 28 weeks to 24. Women seeking abortions would have lost two whole months of choice.
What the 2008 vote revealed was this: even supposedly progressive politicians can be regressive when it comes to abortion. Why? Sometimes it’s because of religious beliefs but, perhaps, it’s more often because they know they risk upsetting voters and losing their jobs. You see, one in five or 37% of Brits think that abortion limits should be reduced and more than four in ten people think that human life begins at conception.
Diana Johnson is the MP for Hull. Last year, she proposed what's known as a Ten Minute Rule Bill in Parliament on the issue of finally decriminalising abortion so that the 1967 Abortion Act is not underpinned by an outdated Victoria Law known as the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act. Under this law, any abortion carried out without meeting all of the 1967 Act's criteria is a crime which can still result in a prison sentence.
'Abortion' Johnson explains 'is one of those issues in Parliament which is a conscience issue' which means that 'parties step back and leave it upto individual MPs to make up their mind on it'. Because of this progress has been slow, 'even in the 60s' she says 'the impetus for the 67 Act came from a backbencher named David Steel, it didn't come from the Government and it didn't come from the opposition'.
Johnson says that when the title of her Ten Minute Rule Bill was published she received thousands of emails 'within hours' all of which told her 'she was a terrible person' for trying to make abortion law more progressive. 'The anti-abortion lobby in this country is very strong' she reflects 'they're also very well-organised. When your an MP and you get that level of traffic in your inbox or in the post, you do sit up and take notice'. However, she says, it's the emails from people 'saying thank you...this is why happened to me' that she holds onto because they remind her how 'important this issue is to women'.
50 years on from the Abortion Act Johnson thinks people have realised that things have moved on and perhaps this law isn't appropriate anymore. 'Attitudes have changed' she says, 'what happened in Ireland has shown that, it's also forced people to pay attention to and thrown a spotlight on how bad things are for women in Northern Ireland'.
So, why does Johnson think nobody has pushed for abortion reform sooner? 'Well' she says 'every time this has been looked at since 1967, it has been about reducing limits and restricting access...there is a sense that if we push we could end up in a worse position'. However, she thinks the fact that she won her Ten Minute Rule Bill vote (which means there can now be an official vote), is proof that things are changing.
Johnson also says that because abortion law in England 'is quite complicated' it's possible that a lot of MPs simply 'didn't know it was still underpinned by an 1861 law'. She also thinks that people are waking up to the fact that 'decriminalisation doesn't mean deregulation' and realising that 'it is not appropriate, in any way, for the criminal law to be involved on this issue...the fact that medical experts agree that this is the right thing is very powerful too.'
In a little over a week, Donald Trump will visit us for the first time since becoming President. We know where he stands on a woman’s right to choose over what happens to her own body, but do we really know where our society stands?
When it comes to politics, the issue reminds us who’s really in charge. So far this year, though, abortion has refused to be whispered about behind shamefully shuttered doors. This signals that women will not allow their right to physical autonomy to be politically sidelined anymore. Pro choice voices are becoming as loud as the anti-abortion lobby but they could still be louder.
Irish citizens, quite literally, travelled across the world to make their public views about this clear. In England, there’s never been a better time to have a new debate of our own