At my last union branch meeting, I lost a vote on a resolution opposing cuts in the abortion time limit. The vote was about 6 for, 10 against, with plenty abstaining (including our branch's SWP member, about which more later).
The arguments against were that while everyone supported a woman's right to choose to have an abortion, they were not so sure about defending 'late' abortions. Why does a woman have to wait so long to decide? What are these medical advances we keep hearing about and don't they make a difference?
To me, this confirms my fear that the right wing is winning the argument on time limits. The anti-choice brigade's dishonest tactic of attacking the time limit, rather than admitting that they oppose abortion altogether, is working. Plenty of people - including those at my branch meeting - had seen anti-abortion literature and heard arguments in favour of cutting the time limit in the media. The anti-choice campaigners' lurid stories and graphic pictures are having the desired effect of making even people who support women's choice feel uncomfortable.
But far fewer people are hearing the arguments against cutting the time limit. I'm not knocking the commitment of campaigners such as Abortion Rights, who do provide useful material such as this briefing on why some women need later abortions, but we need to be doing much much more.
The trade union movement has a particular responsibility here. For decades, it has resolutely supported women's right to choose abortion, knowing that when access to abortion is restricted, it is working-class women who suffer the most. But what is it doing to fight for its policy? Even to promote it to its own members? Both this year and last, I raised this issue at TUC Congress. If I held my breath waiting to see something even as simple as a leaflet, I'd have suffocated long ago. And while Abortion Rights does the aforementioned good work, it seems to have less of a trade union focus than its predecessor the National Abortion Campaign, which partly explains its lower profile.
I'd suggest that, as a minimum, pro-choice activists and the labour movement should:
- organise debates, training and briefing materials to equip our activists to take on and win the arguments
- produce leaflets in massive quantities, and get them out round workplaces and communities
- include articles outlining the arguments in union journals, websites and local newsletters
- get our arguments into the media - both proactively, taking every opportunity to put our case, and reactively, responding to the anti-abortionists
- build the planned TUC demonstration for working women's rights next March as big as possible, with a visible pro-choice presence
What are we waiting for? Are we going to creak into action once Parliament is on the verge of cutting the time limit? Are we going to leave it too late?! I'm not usualy one for pushing panic buttons, but I think that on this issue, we need to. I believe that if Parliament voted on this now, it would cut the time limit, and the majority of the population would support it.
Oh, and the SWP member - he abstained (and said nothing) because the resolution proposed that the union should not support candidates for political office who support attacks on abortion rights. It's truly amazing what principles the SWP are prepared to drop in order to suck up to George Galloway, even sitting on the fence in a vote-out in defence of women's right to choose.
Here's the resolution:
ABORTION RIGHTS (to be submitted to National Women’s Advisory Committee)
We are very concerned about continued pressure from anti-abortionists to reduce the time limit for legal abortion. We believe that this will have a devastating effect on some of the most vulnerable women, the relatively few who need a ‘late’ abortion. We note with horror that around 80,000 women die each year as a result of illegal abortions.
We condemn Early Day Motion 2379, which uses medical advances as a pretext to attack women’s abortion rights, and commend the members of RMT’s Parliamentary group for not signing it. We believe that medical advances should be used to help premature babies, not to attack women’s rights.
We ask the RMT Executive to:
- produce a leaflet explaining why the union opposes any cut in abortion time limits;
- support Abortion Rights (to which we are affiliated) in its campaign against EDM2379;
- not to support candidates for political office who support attacks on abortion rights.