Reproductive Freedoms: An account of our work so far and suggestions for future strategy (Nov 08)
Since the Torch Lit March for Abortion Rights in March 2007 Feminist Fightback have continued to take action around reproductive freedom (a term we decided upon in December 2007 to denote our commitment to a real right to choose whether or not to have a child). Activities have included a picket of the Christian Medical Foundation (Jan 2008), a teach-in at LSE (April 2008), a picket of Battersea Labour Party offices and a picket of the Department of Health (see front page of this site).
So far most of this has been focused on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill and its accompanying legislation regarding abortion law. As a result, we combined the more ‘grass roots’, education focused activities listed above with a ‘lobbyist’ approach (in part in response to reports from parliament that the people who would normal do the parliamentary work on this issue were not doing it). We therefore produced two briefings for MPs, ran letter writing campaigns, leafleted parliament, rang MPs and of course provided a large presence on the two rallies outside parliament called by the national campaign Abortion Rights. Meanwhile, we have launched a statement entitled ‘Trade Unionists for Choice’ putting forward a class struggle approach to the fight for reproductive freedoms, which individual branches can and have signed up to.
In deciding ‘what next?’, we need to take account of the shift in the political situation in the sense that the legislation has now passed through parliament, that we won on defending the time limit but lost on extending our rights (especially to Northern Ireland). This means that high profile actions with the aim of pressuring MPs etc are no longer really appropriate. We decided at the meeting that it would be better to focus on education work (responding to the sense we got over the past year and a half that many of the basic arguments about why abortion needed to be legal had been forgetten). Trade Unionists for Choice should be seen as part of this process of education, rather than an attempt to launch another group. We should also try to reproduce the Teach-in we wrote in other cities around the country.
But the second aspect of our approach should be to continue to try to create political space for people to get active on issues around reproductive freedom e.g. who to target, what to ask for, what actions you can take. At the meeting we discussed how although many feminists did take action around therecent legislation, given this was such a clear cut and pressing issue for all women, it seemed odd that many feminists did not get involved. So there is still an issue where women feel paralysed an unsure how to ‘get active’. We should investigate what feminists did around the Alton Bill, especially the setting up of local groups etc.
Thirdly we need to think about how to relate to Abortion Rights. Our aim is to shape the pro-choice discourse (can we say movement? Does one really exists?) in favour of supporting our wider vision of reproductive freedom, and Abortion Rights is the key campaign to do this through. It still has the prestige of being the national campaign, the affiliation of numerous trade union branches and student unions, and the contact and resources. Of course we need to focus on building a pro-choice movement from the grass roots but at the same time this will not succeed if we do not engage with Abortion Rights. Abortion rights wield political clout (have important contacts in parliament etc., determine how certain MPs vote) and if we do not try to shape their policy then they will continued to capitalise on the grass roots stuff we do (eg we got loads of people to one of their rallies and then this was pronounced a great success for Abortion Rights) while politically neutralising it at a higher level (eg they blocked MPs from putting forward pro-choice amendments at the same time as the time limit being discussed).
However, there are also positive reasons for engaging with Abortion Rights more actively. Most of us are already members and therefore make up some of the organisations most active members! We can meet new people and use Abortion Rights as a forum for getting more local activity going. So our proposal is not to stop doing what we are doing at the moment in favour of trying to ‘take over’ the bureaucratic structures of Abortion Rights. The idea is to continue our grass roots work but to channel it into the national Abortion Rights campaign more effectively.
1. That the pro-choice campaign has focused primarily on a woman’s legal right to choose. Abortion Rights have not made the demands necessary for a women’s real right to choose, such as a living wage, and fighting the fragmentation, privatisation and cuts to the National Health Service.
2. That the Abortion Rights campaign has been fought in a defensive way, has been too willing to make compromise — for example in not lobbying MPs to make positive pro-choice amendments in the run-up to the second reading of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.
3. That in the run-up to the May vote on the HFE bill, the main focus of politicians and the media was around foetal viability.
1.That we need to move away from fighting on the basis of viability arguments. Linking abortion time limits to medical advancements is a dangerous game that not only threatens our right to choose but pits feminists against medical science. We need to show why abortion rights are central to the struggle for women’s liberation and equality.
2. That reproductive freedom for all women will only come with profound changes in society that affect the totality of women’s lives. We demand more than the legal right to choose. We want ‘reproductive freedom’: where women have the freedom to have children, or not to have children. This necessitates: a real living wage for all; benefits which can be lived on; an end to privitisation in, and decent public funding for the NHS; adequate sex education; improved access to free contraception; free community and workplace-based childcare. Women must be treated as responsible and their decisions respected.
1. To broaden the demands of the campaign from the legal right to choose to a real right to choose, including: a real living wage for all; benefits which can be lived on; an end to privatisation in, and decent public funding for the NHS; adequate sex education; improved access to free contraception; free community and workplace-based childcare.
2. To actively work with campaigners working on the broader demands, making links to the campaign for reproductive freedom and working together where appropriate, including attending other events with the Abortion Rights banner and working with other organisations who are working on other demands for necessary for reproductive freedom (such as NHS privatisation, living wages, childcare) to lobby together and produce joint statements.
1. That in the past the campaign to defend and extend abortion rights has been built on the basis of mass action – street petitioning, meetings, pickets, local marches, national demonstrations, political campaigning and the active involvement of the trade union movement. This was seen in 1979 when TUC and the National Abortion Campaign (forerunner to Abortion Rights) jointly organised a national demonstration of more than 60,000 people to fight the Corrie Bill and in the 1980s pro-choice activists mobilised against the Alton bill by forming FAB (Fight the Alton Bill) groups in towns, workplaces, and educational institutions across the UK.
2. That currently, the trade union movement’s main involvement in the campaign is to give money to Abortion Rights.
3. That the campaign for choice is no longer a grassroots campaign involving trade unions, schools, women’s groups, student groups and health organisations. This will not change while the primary public face of the campaign is speaker meetings in the House of Commons.
1. That as difficult as it is, we have to fight for a different sort of campaign – a campaign of mass action. We want to make our pro-choice voice heard! We need to do more than simply lobby in parliament: we must get out on the streets and remind people why we still need to fight for a real right to choose. Abortion rights are still under attack, and will be increasingly sounder a Conservative government – and we need to organise now to defend and extend them.
2. That the role of trade unions could and should be much more. Instead of just donating money they should start making the arguments for a woman’s right to choose, among their members, & in society. We want to stand in a tradition of mass, grassroots labour movement activity for women’s right to choose.
3. That politics should not be solely about what happens in the Houses of Parliament— not least because none of the mainstream parties adequately defend the public services we need to win a real right to choose — but about people coming together to struggle for change. The campaign needs to be directed and ought from the grassroots. This necessitates the active involvement of trade unions, schools, women’s groups, student groups and health organisations.
1. To enable decentralised local activity by facilitating communication between existing groups of activists in different areas, and to provide advice and support for those wanting to establish local groups.
2. To offer support to grassroots activists such as promoting actions to the Abortion Rights membership and networks; help with press work; sharing of press, parliamentary and trade union contacts.
3. To organise and widely publicise mass actions such as rallies at critical points in the campaign in order to get the pro-choice voice heard on the streets. Rallies should focus on broader demands for reproductive freedom and have a wide range of speakers, including speakers from trade unions, grass-roots campaigns, anti-privatisation campaigns and anti NHS cuts campaigns.
4. To provide and publicise speaker training for abortion rights activists and to co-ordinate a rolling programme of Abortion Rights members to speak at trade union branches, schools, student groups, women’s groups and health organisations as a first step towards a proactive grassroots campaign for reproductive freedom for all.
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