In light of the Supreme Court of the United States’ recent overturning of Roe versus Wade, Feminist Fightback focused our political discussion this month on the question of whether abortion rights were also under threat in the United Kingdom. In particular we considered cases recently brought to light by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service of women being prosecuted for ending their own pregnancies. This included women who had purchased abortion pills from the Internet (rather than via their GP surgeries) and women who had had late miscarriages and/or stillbirths who were then wrongly accused of self-terminations. These prosecutions are possible because the 1967 Abortion Act did not decriminalise abortion, but rather made it permissible on certain conditions including requiring the authorisation of 2 doctors. Abortions outside of these parameters are still considered a criminal act.
It seems bizarre that the Crown Prosecution Service, who have full discretion over these matters, would decide that pursuing cases against vulnerable women in these exceptional circumstances was in the public interest and a good use of time and resources. As we understand it, these women’s actions would have had to have been reported to the police in the first place (possibly by a doctor or social worker); the police would have been compelled to investigate and handover their findings to the Crown Prosecution Service which would then have made a decision over whether to prosecute.
Are these cases simply the result of reactionary individuals acting punitively against women who have been unlucky enough to fall into their care? Or is there a policy within the Crown Prosecution Service to seek out such cases to hold them up as an example to discourage women from circumventing the medical establishment now that abortion pills are relatively easy to buy online? We will be seeking more information on this in future would be grateful if anybody who knows more gets in touch.
Whatever the political motivations, the fact remains that, as long as abortion remains criminalised in the UK, women’s reproductive decisions are under a significant amount of state surveillance. And even women with wanted pregnancies who have terrible misfortune to undergo a stillbirth or late miscarriage, will become suspects in the eyes of the medical establishment, police and state – presumed guilty until they can prove themselves innocent. And of course the ability to prove yourself innocent so often depends upon how ‘respectable’ the state considers you to be. So it is most likely that young women, migrant women, trans men and people of colour will be considered suspect and have their medical cases handed over to the police.
It is on this issue of further criminalising women that the UK situation has most parallels with the US. As feminist author Sophie Lewis has pointed out, the ‘no return to backstreet abortions’ slogan that the pro-choice movement has used in the past, is no longer the most relevant. Now that ‘illegal’ early abortions can be fairly safely and easily acquired through purchasing abortion pills online, the danger is not deaths from unsafe abortions but the criminalisation and mass incarceration of women in the US who are denied legal routes to terminating unwanted pregnancies.
When considering the global context in which abortion rights are being curtailed, it is not necessarily helpful to assume that there is one overarching motivation or pattern. As we discussed in a previous article, although far right nationalism is certainly key to anti-‘gender ideology’ politics that include attacks on abortion rights, it is not useful to describe this as ‘pro-natalist’. In so many countries, especially the United States, lack of childcare, flexible working, parental benefits and other forms of welfare support mean that it is just as difficult to have a child as it is to terminate a pregnancy. The motivation is not to ‘encourage’ people to have more children, but rather to criminalise women and control their reproductive capacity.
Although there are some parallels between the United States and the UK, there are also important differences. Britain still has relatively ‘liberal’ abortion laws – the 24 week time limit is one of the latest in Europe and terminations are free under the NHS. Women in England and Wales are now able to access early abortions at home (following a teleconsultation with a medical professional) by being sent the necessary pills, rather than having to go into hospital to take them. Although this only further highlights the incredibly punitive decision to prosecute women who have effectively done exactly this (with the only difference being that they purchased the pills themselves rather than via the NHS), it is a significant step forward in normalising abortion as a safe and mundane procedure rather than exceptionalising and stigmatising it by imposing unnecessary medical supervision. It is also significant that, after the rescinding of Roe versus Wade, the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson referred to the Supreme Court’s actions as ‘a big step backwards’. While we have no faith in Johnson or Truss’ commitment to pro-choice politics, the fact that neither has yet decided that attacks on abortion rights will be another popular red-meat-to-the-base policy suggests that attitudes among Conservative Party members and voters have not shifted as far to the right as they have among US Republicans.
This should not make us complacent, but it does mean we need to think about the many different ways in which abortion rights can be curtailed beyond legislative change. Over the last 10 years Feminist Fightback has highlighted the dangerous growth of anti-choice pickets outside clinics (and organised some effective counter protests). Already using a US-style model of intimidation and funding networks, these religious reactionaries have been emboldened by the Roe vs. Wade decision. 40 Days for Life have just announced a new autumn campaign to harass women using abortion clinics round the UK, including in Southend, Brighton and Reading. In September, March for Life (‘life from inception no exception’) held a demo in central London, which they claim 7,000 people attended, although there was also a strong counter demo organised by Abortion Rights.
It is therefore possible to foresee a scenario in which abortion remains legal in the UK, but becomes harder and harder to access in practice as the far right grows. As one of our Italian sisters pointed out, when abortion was legalised in Italy in 1978 the law included a conscience clause that allowed doctors to refuse to perform the procedure if it conflicted with their values. For many years this had little impact, but as reactionary Catholicism and far right politics has increased over the last 20 years, emboldening anti-abortion medical practitioners, there are now many cities in Italy where all the abortion clinics have been forced to close. UK doctors also have the right to conscientious objection when it comes to abortion (this is not permitted for any other medical procedure except fertility treatment).
Another ‘back door’ route to restricting abortion is via NHS privatisation. The Health and Social Care Act (2012) allowed NHS services to be outsourced, with anti-abortion Christian charities being commissioned to run pregnancy advice services. As the welfare state continues to be cut back to almost nothing, more and more religious organisations will step in to fill the vacuum, many of them using this as a way to gain influence and support for patriarchal, homophobic and transphobic views.
The North of Ireland is a salutary example of a state where abortion is legal but impossible to access. Although abortion rights were finally extended to this part of the UK in 2020, the Department of Health has not commissioned abortion services, leaving an underfunded and overworked healthcare system to provide it on an ad hoc and entirely inadequate basis.
The picture is not entirely bleak. The UK has a strong pro-choice movement which is increasingly promoting not just abortion rights but the more expansive demand of ‘reproductive rights’ (the choice to have a child as well as not to have one, which necessitates a strong welfare state and particular attention to how women of colour, migrant women and working-class women are often deterred from having children). Many of us are making the link between attacks on women’s reproductive autonomy and attacks on trans people’s bodily autonomy and creating stronger alliances accordingly. We need to keep building this movement and remain alert to the different fronts on which the struggle for abortion rights has to be fought – legislative but also economically and culturally.