Respect silent on abortion onslaught

Abortion has once again become an extremely sensitive and controversial question - and a central issue in the forthcoming general election. Yet so far, reports Anne Mc Shane, Respect has nothing to say on the matter.

Parading himself as the 'family man' of politics, Michael Howard has made it known that he favours a cut of one month in the time limit from conception, after which abortion is not normally permitted. He has received fulsome support for doing so from the rightwing press and the catholic church. Militant pro-life groups are exuberant, as is the Daily Mail, which forecasts that the furore will put Tony Blair under enormous pressure to change the law. Indeed the Mail has launched a new campaign aimed at doing just that: while Amanda Platell whinges in its pages about women who want too much, shocking statistics and real life stories illustrate for readers "the alarming figures" (Daily Mail March 15). This most recent storm was precipitated when the current edition of Cosmopolitan carried interviews with the main party leaders as part of the magazine's patronisingly entitled 'High heel vote' series, aimed at encouraging young women to take part in the election. Keenly aware of the threat to abortion rights, Cosmo has also been running features over the last few months in support of a woman's right to choose. It has reported that the response of its readers, particularly younger women, has been overwhelmingly positive to the retention of the law as it is. Therefore it is a key question when it comes to voting in the general election. Obviously not concerned about winning over this section of the electorate, Howard came down hard on the question. He said: "I am not happy with the current situation; I think what we have now is tantamount to abortion on demand." Instead the limits should be reduced from 24 to 20 weeks. Tony Blair was less forthright - he personally disliked the idea of abortion, but had no plans at present to change the law: although "the debate will continue "¦ I think that people do understand that at some point there must be rights for the foetus that are valid". Charles Kennedy could not make up his mind and said "last time I voted for 22 weeks, [but] medical technology has moved on, so I do not know what I would do now" (Cosmopolitan April). So there you go - it is clear that all party leaders are receptive to some kind of change in the law to undermine still further a woman's right to choose. Blair is keen on supporting 'foetal rights', while Howard argues that women in contemporary society have too much freedom. He was rewarded for his outspokenness with helpful electoral advice from the leadership of the catholic church. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor issued a letter to his flock the following day, giving guidance on how they should vote and underlining one central determining factor: "Abortion for catholics is a very key issue - we are totally opposed to it. The policy supported by Michael Howard is one we would also commend, on the way to a full abandonment of abortion" (The Times March 15). In contrast Labour could no longer be confident of the catholic vote - the notion that catholics "would be more in support of the Labour Party" can no longer be relied upon And it was not just christians who weighed in behind Howard. Chief rabbi Jonathan Sachs and Iqbal Sacranie, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, also voiced their support. All of this will of course have an impact on Blair. A devout Anglican, he regularly attends mass with his wife, who is a practising catholic. He is open to moves to clamp down further on women's rights and has consistently bowed before rightwing pressure groups. He will also remember the experience of John Kerry in the US election. Kerry, a catholic, was vilified by the Vatican for his pro-choice stance and a vote was recommended instead for the protestant (but fundamentalist) Bush. In fact, since the election, US Democrats have moved to the right to ensure that there is no repeat of this experience. The National Organization for Women reports that Democratic leaders are now actively recruiting anti-abortion candidates and forcing out pro-choice Democrats (www.now.org). Added to this is the fact that pseudo-scientific ideas imbuing embryos with social qualities have now become widely accepted thanks to the rightwing press. There needs to be a 'balancing act' between the rights of the foetus and those of the woman, it is claimed. And the later into pregnancy and more desperate the woman, the less rights she should have. It is ideas like this that have led to the deaths of several women in Ireland, where abortion is banned and the 'rights' of the foetus are paramount, except where the woman faces certain death if the pregnancy is continued. And even then the most that is allowed is that the woman can come to Britain for an abortion. The pressure on abortion rights, particularly late abortions, has been growing for some time. Last year there were calls for the time limit to be reduced by David Steel, former leader of the Liberal Democrats and architect of the original Abortion Act. 2004 also saw scurrilous media attacks on the British Pregnancy Advice Service, targeted for giving counselling to women seeking an abortion after 24 weeks. There have been numerous reports of increasing difficulty in obtaining an abortion after 20 weeks - medical staff influenced by the reactionary ideological onslaught are clearly anticipating a change in the law. The right has obviously gained ground. We have warned on numerous occasions against complacency - in opposition to the Socialist Workers Party and others. At a meeting held on September 16 2004 to discuss the launch of a new pro-choice initiative, Candy Udwin told us "on behalf of" the SWP that "it would be extremely difficult to encroach on existing rights" and that there was no reason for a new campaign to be set up. For them it was a non-issue. Given the views of Respect's largely phantom right wing, the Muslim Association of Britain, she and her comrades were obviously hoping it would not become more of an issue. When we raised it in Respect meetings, we were denounced as anti-muslim and splitters. In their opportunist lurch to the right the SWP wanted to deny that we were raising real and important concerns. But will they continue to maintain their shameful silence in the face of increased tensions on the issue? The Howard interview is hardly a one-off. Last week the catholic church in Wales announced that it would be calling for a boycott of Red Nose Day (RND) on the basis that money was going to projects which assisted or promoted abortion. Comic Relief replied defensively that we "do not fund and have never funded abortion services or the promotion of abortion". This denial won a reprieve - "I am afraid there has been a misunderstanding," said the right reverend Mark Jabale, bishop of the Menevia Diocese in South Wales. "Comic Relief has assured the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales that they would be willing to hand their books over to us to check, so that we could see that they do not support any abortion projects"(The Guardian March 8). Not to be outdone, the leader of Scotland's Roman catholics also called for a boycott - this time of the lottery - in protest at its donations totalling £3.3 million to the Brooke Advisory Service and the Family Planning Association. Cardinal Keith O'Brien accused the lottery of a "blatant misuse of funds" and called on catholics not to buy lottery tickets (The Scotsman March 14). He blames these bodies for encouraging a climate of 'immorality' and causing a rise in teenage pregnancies - because they provide contraceptives and information on abortion services! Extremist groups like Christian Voice and UK Life League have been given an injection of confidence. Stephen Green, leader of Christian Voice, recently boasted that his next target is abortion clinics - "The taking of innocent blood brings judgement on our land and cries to heaven for vengeance," he said. "The presence of abortion centres in our towns is iniquitous. They should be shut down. It would not take much ..." (The Times February 26). UK Life League has published the names and addresses of doctors involved in providing abortions. Meanwhile Respect has not a word to say on the subject. Of course, we know that this is a difficult question for the leadership. George Galloway made overtures to muslims during the June 2004 European election, on the basis that he is a religious man who is morally opposed to abortion. Respect refuses to commit its elected representatives to vote against any attacks. Although Respect's policy statement, agreed in October 2004, says it "opposes any change in legislation that restricts abortion rights and defends the right to choose", Lindsey German was at pains to emphasise at the last conference that this question should be regarded as a matter of 'conscience' for individual candidates. In contrast, Respect's election literature prioritises housing, pensions and public services, with the only political - ie, non-trade union-type - question being its opposition to war and the occupation of Iraq. None of the election material I have seen mentions women's rights, never mind the right to choose. It is economistic drivel, aiming at winning soft votes and offering no concrete solutions. Revolutionary socialists and communists must unequivocally take sides. We support a woman's right to choose whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. Women must therefore have the right to an abortion - as early as possible, as late as necessary. Those who cannot, or will not, take a principled stand on this question for fear of offending christian or muslim sensibilities are deserting Marxism for electoralism.