An issue that cannot be ducked

The recent attacks on abortion rights by the Sunday Telegraph show that the left must start an offensive to defend and extend a woman's right to choose, writes Anne McShane - against the wishes of the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Action

Last week’s Sunday Telegraph ‘exposé’ of the activities of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) has once again ignited the controversy over late-term abortions (October 10). It has also provided more ideological ammunition to ‘pro-lifers’ and their allies in parliament.

In a clear attempt to raise a reactionary storm, The Sunday Telegraph began an investigation into all abortion services in Britain in September. It particularly targeted charities that are given government money to provide services and information. A sting operation was set up using a pregnant reporter to act as an agent provocateur.

She contacted BPAS, one of the main abortion providers in Britain, and told them that she was 25 weeks pregnant and needed help. A staff member at BPAS told her they were unable to assist, but if she was desperate she could contact the Ginemedex clinic in Barcelona. When the reporter, Charlotte Edwardes, rang the clinic, she was informed that an abortion could be provided for just over £2,000.

Asked if it was legal, the clinic told her that under Spanish law abortion is allowed beyond 22 weeks if the mother’s life is in grave danger (including for mental health reasons), so it could be provided for women in her circumstances. The Sunday Telegraph claimed not only that such an abortion would be illegal under Spanish law, but that the BPAS’s action in recommending such a course was illegal too, since the 1967 Abortion Act states that “anything done with intent to procure the miscarriage of a woman”, unless she fulfils “certain stringent criteria”, is unlawful (October 10).

Abortion in Britain is not permitted after 24 weeks unless the foetus will be so severely handicapped as to make it unviable if the pregnancy were allowed to go full-term. In fact even if these circumstances exist it is very difficult to get late abortions. In Scotland, for instance, there is no official provision after 14 weeks and it is difficult to find doctors and facilities available to perform them, despite their legality. After 18 weeks many doctors refuse to carry out terminations. No surprise then that women are travelling abroad. According to the Telegraph, 80% of the women who travel to the Ginemedex clinic are British.

The intrepid Ms Edwardes also made her way there. After intensive questioning and physical examination the doctor agreed to carry out the abortion - at which time she made a hasty retreat. In the meantime another undercover reporter spoke to the sister of a British woman who was at the clinic. He learned that there were extremely “strange and upsetting circumstances” surrounding the situation of this woman. He was told that the decision to terminate had been difficult to make and therefore put off, but it had been a harrowing and expensive one.

The woman’s sister insisted: “She’s got no choice really. It’s just something she has got to do. It’s awful, it’s not nice.” At least The Sunday Telegraph permits itself to reveal something of the emotional trauma that desperate women are forced to endure.

Armed with the results of its operation and extremely pleased with himself, The Sunday Telegraph editor approached John Reid, minister for health. who is well known for his opposition to abortion. He responded swiftly, promising to investigate and take action: “If there is evidence that the will of parliament is being thwarted and that the law of a fellow European country is being broken by an organisation in receipt of public money, this will be a very serious situation indeed.” There have been many calls for the police to investigate.

BPAS has so far refused to buckle under the threats and pressure. Ann Furedi, its chief executive, was contacted directly by the Telegraph and the results of its investigation were put to her. Her response was a cool “So what is your point exactly?”

In subsequent interviews she has been adamant that BPAS has not done anything illegal by informing women of the availability of abortion services abroad. She has referred to the Irish ‘X’ case, where the government’s attempt to stop a pregnant girl from leaving to access abortion facilities in Britain was found to be illegal.

Furedi, a supporter of the Spiked website, set up by the now disbanded Revolutionary Communist Party, obviously needs to be backed in the face of this renewed ideological offensive and any consequent governmental action. Unless there is a campaign of resistance the government will find it easy to crack down. This is particularly the case in current circumstances, where we have been subjected to a torrent of propaganda aimed at promoting so-called foetal ‘rights’ over and above the rights of women.

It is important for the left to act. It is unfortunate therefore that the largest organisation on the left, the Socialist Workers Party, has so far poured cold water on any possible campaign.

At a meeting held on September 16 to discuss the launch of a new pro-choice initiative, Candy Udwin of the SWP told us “on behalf of” her organisation that “it would be extremely difficult to encroach on existing rights” and that there was therefore no reason for a new campaign to be set up. Obviously crass nonsense and opportunism. We all know why. At a Respect meeting in Hackney on October 8, held to agree resolutions to conference, Julie Waterson led her fellow SWP members in denouncing those who argued for Respect to take a principled position. She said she was a member of a revolutionary organisation that has a policy to defend a woman’s right to choose. But Respect was not such an organisation and if it adopted such a principled position it might put off people who did not want to go that far. Meaning George Galloway and various muslim clerics, of course, who oppose abortion on the basis of obscurantist religious dogma.

She was supported by her comrade, Gareth Jenkins, who argued that Respect should not campaign for an extension of abortion rights - ie, making the right to choose a reality. You cannot help but wonder how the SWP proposes to put its own politics into practice when it refuses to put them forward in the organisation that is its main field of activity. Maybe principle is now considered a private matter for SWP members.

It is a sad state of affairs when these so-called revolutionaries de facto refuse to side with oppressed women against the state. Respect will only defend existing legislation - legislation under which John Reid is threatening to prosecute the BPAS and in doing so stop women seeking abortion abroad. The Telegraph and its supporters are on the march. It is lobbying for the “robust and no-nonsense health secretary” to take action. Its editorial denounces Ann Furedi for having the courage to take a firm stance and argues that “morally confused women” need to be protected against those who can help them to terminate their pregnancy. Women are mere vessels for the production of children and so the life of a foetus must come first.

Calls are being made for an investigation into BPAS’s funding in view of its alleged collusion with illegal acts. Even if criminal proceedings are not taken, it is obvious that funding may be cut or withdrawn. And with BPAS being one of the main abortion providers, women who look to it for help will of course be the ones to suffer. Yet Candy Udwin tells us we are all making a fuss about nothing.
Meanwhile, The Sunday Telegraph is lobbying for new legislative restrictions. It reports that there are now more than 100 MPs who have signed a motion to be presented to parliament in order to implement such bans. Obviously a campaign is necessary and one that is firmly based on a woman’s right to choose. While the anti-abortionists focus on the question of a foetus’s ‘viability’, we must both side with desperate women who, under present legislation, are forced to go to Spain and campaign to extend abortion rights. Abortion must be available as early as possible and as late as necessary. Women must have the final decision over their own bodies and whether they want to reproduce or not. It is time to take a defiant stance.

The women’s assembly at the European Social Forum will discuss taking collective action across Europe on this important question. Abortion is illegal in Ireland, Poland and Switzerland and is severely restricted in many other countries, particularly in Portugal, with large numbers of women and doctors facing criminal prosecutions.

In Britain and Italy attacks are beginning on existing rights. Despite the efforts of governments, however, women, as they always will, are seeking out abortions where they do not wish to continue their pregnancy. With great difficulty and despite the risks, they either travel abroad or turn to illegal facilities in their own country - 20,000 illegal abortions are carried out in Portugal every year, for example. Irish women are wholly dependent on British clinics and Swiss women travel to Germany. The interdependency is obvious.

The significance of a European-wide fightback would be profound. A working class-led campaign would immediately unite Spanish and British campaigners and send a strong message to those who want to repress women and control their lives. The working class must take up all democratic questions if it is to liberate itself.