TUC blog: Abortion rights

Submitted by Janine on Tue, 09/13/2005 - 17:32

As promised, here is the speech I made in Congress yesterday on abortion rights ...

Statements made during the General Election campaign and since suggest that women's abortion rights could soon come under attack.

One in three women in Britain has an abortion. Every one has her reason. For many, it is a difficult choice. But it is her choice.

The film Vera Drake reminded us what happened before 1967, when abortion was still illegal. Women went to backstreet abortionists, and some were injured or killed.

In our society, there will always be women facing a crisis pregnancy who choose abortion. The choice that society faces is not between abortions and no abortions - it is between illegal, unsafe abortions, or safe, legal ones.

Before 1967, rich women could usually buy their way around the law and pay a doctor to carry out a termination. It was working-class women who suffered in the backstreets.

Leaders of several religions - including a Catholic archbishop, the Chief Rabbi, and a representative of the Muslim Council of Britain - have recently called for restrictions on women's abortion rights.

These religious authorities want to impose their views on women. And despite the low level of religious observance in this country, politicians of all shades seem willing to help them.

This is not right and not democratic. As a long-standing pro-choice slogan says, "Not the church, not the state - women must decide our fate".

We may well see an attempt in Parliament to cut the time limit for legal abortion from the current 24 weeks to 20 weeks.

Relatively few abortions are carried out between 20 and 24 weeks, but there are several good reasons why a woman might leave it this late:

  • She may have been obstructed by an anti-abortion doctor.
  • Her circumstances might have changed - her partner might have left her or may have started to beat or abuse her.
  • A young woman might have been afraid to come forward earlier.
  • An older woman may have mistaken the signs of pregnancy for the menopause.

The pretext for cutting time limits is usually that medical advances have made it possible for foetuses to suvive outside the womb at an earlier stage. These medical advances are welcome, and should be used to help premature babies, to spare parents the hearbreak of losing a baby they love and want - not to force women to bear children that they do not want.

The best ways to reduce the number of late abortions are to reduce unwanted pregnancy and to improve access to earlier abortions.

This could be achieved by better sex education; free, effective contraception; and the removal of the need for two doctors' permission to have an abortion.

Ironically, the religious authorities which attack abortion rights usually also oppose these measures. We have to reject their conservative agenda and defend women's right to control our own bodies.

I ask the General Council to confirm that the TUC will take the lead in defending abortion rights against any attack in Parliament.

PS. The General Council did confirm this.