TUC Women Discuss Abortion Rights

Submitted by Janine on Wed, 03/14/2007 - 20:44

Here I am at TUC Women's Conference in Scarborough. Today, I moved RMT's emergency resolution on abortion rights. Here's my speech, plus a report on the debate that followed.

(Pic: The RMT delegation pose in front of the Conference banner in defence of abortion rights)

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Until now, the political dominance of right-wing parties and the Catholic Church has mean thtat Portugal has had very restrictive abortion laws. Abortion has only been legal if the woman's life is in danger, there is sever fetal disability, or the pregnancy is the result of rape.

Women needing abortions in other circumstances have been forced to take desperate measures. When the Women On Waves ship sailed to Portugal in 2004 to help women access safe, legal abortion, the right-wing government sent war ships to stop it entering Portuguese waters!

That government has since been voted out and the Socialist Party elected.

On 11th February this year, the Portuguese poeple voted in a referendum to legalise abortion up to the tenth week of pregnancy. And I'm pleased to report that last Friday, 9th March, Parliament voted to enact this decision in law.

The trade union and labour movement played a massive role in winning this victory for women.

But while abortion rights are being liberalised in some countries, in Britain they are under attack.

The anti-choice brigade is on the offensive, dishonestly attacking the time limit rather than admitting they oppose abortion altogether.

I want to sound an alarm. The anti-abortionists are winning the argument. While the big majority of people in Britain still firmly support women's right to choose, the anti-abortionists have successfully spreqad doubt and fear about so-called late abortions.

Plenty of people have seen anti-abortion propaganda, their lurid stories and graphic pictures, and heard arguments in favour of cutting the time limit in the media. Far fewer peole are hearing our arguments for extending rather than restricting choice.

We can pass all the resolutions we like, but we can not be complacent. I am aware of at least two branch meetings in my own union which have voted down pro-choice resolutions because of discomfort among members about late abortions.

The trade union movement has a particular responsibility here. We have resolutely support women's right to choose abortion, knwoing that when access to abortion is restricted, it is working-class women who suffer the most.

But it is not enough to reaffirm our policies and stand by our policies - we have to fight for our policies.

This resolution proposes one simple thing - one very little thing - that would help that fight. We ask the TUC to provide information on why some women may need an abortion close to the time limit. This will help us to counteract the anti-abortionists' propaganda and illustrate why we believe that women should have the right to safe, legal abortion as early as possible, as late as necessary.

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The Fire Brigades' Union seconded the resolution, with Ruth Winters giving a strong speech that highlighted the 'postcode lottery' of NHS abortion provision.

Michele Emerson from the Communication Workers' Union also spoke in support, rightly pointing out that we need to extend abortion rights as well as defending them, and that this is a working-class issue because "women with money have always been able to buy safe abortions".

A delegate from the GMB accurately described how teenage women and menopausal women are two of the groups most likely to need late abortions, due to delays in realising, or accepting, that they are pregnant.

The only note of disagreement came when a delegate from the University and Colleges Union said that whilst supporting the resolution, they would have wanted to amend it to include an extra sentence about recognising medical opinion about fetal viability.

Because of this, I used my right of reply (sometimes considered faintly impolite in TUC circles) to make the point that medical advances are welcome and should be used to help wanted, premature babies rather than to attack women's choices. The issue is not fetal viability but women's rights.

The resolution was carried unanimously.

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