Extend abortion rights

It is more important than ever to fight for a woman's right to choose, writes Louise Whittle. Existing legal rights are inadequate - they must be extended

In Britain the question of abortion rights has been on the left's back burner for some time. There is certainly no large-scale campaigning and there is little, if any, debate on the issue.

Globally there is a huge problem of a lack of access to safe abortion and a quarter of the world's women live in countries where abortion is criminalised more or less completely, often only allowing abortion if the life of the woman is at risk. This contrasts with approximately 80,000 deaths each year that are the result of women being forced to have unsafe abortions. This means that about every six minutes a woman dies from an illegal termination. The 'pro-life' campaigners continue to have a lot to answer for.

The World Health Organisation estimates that 20 million of the 46 million pregnancies that are terminated every year are carried out under unsafe conditions or in an adverse social or legal climate. This represents a huge threat to the well-being of women throughout the world. Yet in Britain the complacency of the left, including the trade unions, is allowing public opinion to drift and is in danger of allowing the anti-abortionists to set the terms of the debate about abortion rights.

A recent front page headline of the normally liberal The Observer read: "Women demand tougher laws to curb abortions" (January 29). The paper was commenting on the results of a Mori survey, which found that 47% of women believe that the time limit for abortion should be cut from the present 24 weeks. The Observer also reported that Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor thought that there had been a "moral awakening" over the past few years over the issue.

It is worth pointing out, then, on the occasion of International Women's Day, that the fight for a woman's right to choose is as urgent and as necessary as ever.

Global situation

In many countries abortion is treated for all intents and purposes as a criminal offence in virtually all circumstances. In Europe this includes the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Malta and Portugal. Poland has allowed a similar situation to arise. Generally legal terminations only take place in the most extreme circumstances. This leads to a lot of women being forced to travel to other countries such as Spain and Britain to obtain abortions.

Portugal in particular actively prosecutes doctors who carry out abortions and the women who have them. There is a maximum prison sentence of three years. In 2001, 17 women were prosecuted for having an illegal termination. A nurse was convicted and sentenced to seven and a half years for performing abortions.

In 1997 a bill calling for the legalisation of abortion on request during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy was passed by the Portuguese parliament. However, the prime minister decided to call a referendum on the issue, which took place in June 1998. Although 50.5% of those voting opposed the measure to allow abortion up to 10 weeks, there was only a 31.8% turnout and the Portuguese constitution states that a referendum result is only valid if more than 50% of the electorate vote. Despite this the Portuguese parliament decided not to proceed with the bill.

It is estimated that 20,000 illegal abortions are performed in Portugal each year. As a result of complications during such operations 5,000 woman have to attend hospital each year and about 100 women have died unnecessarily during the last 20 years. A woman in Portugal is up to 150 times more likely to die from an abortion than a woman living in the Netherlands. In Kenya, 30%-50% of maternal deaths are due to unsafe abortions.

In autumn 2000, the International Planned Parenthood Federation (European Network) published a comprehensive review of grounds on which abortion is permitted in Europe. They estimated that 26 of the 37 countries reviewed have abortion laws that allow the procedures without restrictions in the first trimester. In Switzerland, a referendum was held in June 2002 which backed a parliamentary measure to allow abortions within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Countries which allow this definition of 'on request' include Albania, Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary and Italy. In Italy an estimated 150,000 people took to the streets in Milan in January this year in defence of abortion rights. Prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, with the support of the catholic church, plans to reverse the 1978 law that makes abortion legal during the first three months of pregnancy.

In the Netherlands, which has one of the lowest abortion rates in the world, the law permits abortion virtually on request at any time between implantation and 'viability', if performed by a physician in a licensed hospital. This is within a framework which includes universal sex education, easily accessible family planning and a provision of emergency contraception.

In the United States there has been a plethora of attacks on reproductive rights, not least late abortions. The infamous Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act became law in autumn 2003, but was declared unconstitutional by two federal appeals courts on January 31. The courts stated that the act lacks an exception for cases in which a woman's health is at stake. The matter rests with the Supreme Court, which will now resolve the constitutionality of this law.

Unfortunately, Senate passed the Unborn Victims of Violence Act by a vote of 61 to 38 votes on March 25 2004. Currently, 29 states have laws recognising killing of an unborn foetus as homicide. This act, also known as the Laci and Conner law, came about when Laci Petersen, who was pregnant at the time, was murdered by her husband. He was found guilty of murdering not only his wife, but also their unborn son, Conner. Mirroring this case, the act elevates the legal status of the foetus to that of a social being - a "child in utero" is defined as "a member of the species homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb". The Petersen case represented a brutal and tragic crime, but legislation on the basis of singular events make for exceedingly bad law - in this instance a back-door attempt to ban abortion.

There have been further attacks such as the 'global gag' rule which denies US foreign assistance to organisations funding abortion services. Then there is the emphasis on 'abstinence only' education, and the freezing of funds for family planning programmes. It is now a federal crime to transport a minor across state lines for an abortion, while the use of condoms, the pill and other forms of contraceptives is increasingly condemned.

Not all bad news "¦?

Recently the UK anti-abortion lobby suffered a blow, with Sue Axon losing her attempt to overturn government guidelines ensuring confidentiality for young people seeking sexual health information and services.

A more significant and welcome step is that the government has been conducting a pilot study into medical abortion at home. This procedure is used in countries like France and the USA and could potentially reduce the problems of accessing abortions due to obstructive GPs and the so-called 'postcode lottery'. This would widen choice and allow women to have an abortion in a safe and familiar environment.

The British government has defied the USA by giving money for safe abortion services in developing countries to organisations that have been cut off from American funding. The UK, from February 6, became the founder donor of a fund set up to attempt to replace the lost dollars and increase safe abortion services. The US clampdown has increased the number of unsafe abortions by cutting off funds to clinics that provide contraception advice. Millions of dollars a year have been lost through this 'global gag'.

As early as possible, as late as necessary

The percentage of all abortions at 20 weeks or more is small. It has remained at between 1% and 1.6% of total terminations for many years. For example, in England and Wales during 2002, there were 175,932 abortions, of which 2,874 were performed after 20 weeks.

Late abortions are rare and certainly the less bureaucracy, the more likelihood that late abortions would be reduced (the primary providers for late abortions are the independent sector, as opposed to the NHS). But some women (from the scared and naive teenager to the older person who thinks she is hitting the menopause) do not realise they are pregnant until quite late. And restrictive laws themselves cause delays - for example, forcing women to become 'abortion tourists' and make arrangements to travel to a country where the termination can be carried out.

For whatever reasons, even if abortion were 'on request' up to 12 weeks and the time limits were reduced, there would always be women who will need a late abortion and we must defend that right.

In Ireland, many women find ways of overcoming the restrictive and oppressive abortion laws. It is estimated that over 6,000 women (probably more, as women travel to other parts of Europe as well as Britain) leave Ireland every year to seek an abortion - many have to borrow the money to travel and many will need late abortions due to the red tape and bureaucracy. A 2000-01 survey carried out by Marie Stopes found that most women (95% of those surveyed) from Northern Ireland who travelled to Britain for an abortion would have preferred it to have taken place in the Six Counties. The same percentage supported the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. Most said they felt dissatisfied or mistrustful of their GP and only 34% had consulted their doctor. It was found that 44% had to borrow money to have the abortion carried out.

Women on Waves (an organisation set up in 1999 which has a mobile clinic easily loaded onto a ship, enabling it to travel to where it is needed globally) docked in both Dublin and Cork during June 2001. They were greeted  by hundreds of women wanting appointments and information regarding sexual health. They had to turn many away. This is the reality of suppressing vital information about sexual health, including access to free, safe, legal abortion. But when there are politicians who believe pregnancy is the 'will of god', the pro-choice movement has to challenge and continue to fight this religious and reactionary morality.

Access to sex education and free contraception is equally vital. An example is the morning-after pill - demand for Levonelle increases over holiday periods (ie, summer and Christmas), but, with GPs' surgeries and pharmacists closed, accessibility is limited. Therefore advanced prescription is an important service, although many women do not know they can request it, according to the Family Planning Association. And Levonelle costs £24 if you buy it over the counter - again highlighting the problem of accessibility for poorer women.

Last week, the editor of Cosmo Girl delivered a petition to Downing Street demanding better sex and relationship education in schools. The 'Just say know' campaign revealed that a third of teens thought sex and relationship education they had received was "rubbish" and more than 80% felt it could be better.

We need a pro-choice campaign that encompasses all of these demands, and ensures that a woman's right to control their own reproductive capacity is paramount. We need to fight against the dictates of religious and state morality and for a system which supports sex education and provides free and accessible contraception, including the morning-after pill. We need a socialist and feminist campaign alongside the wider struggle for women's liberation.

South Dakota threat

The South Dakota Senate decision to ban abortion heralds a new, dangerous offensive by the christian right, warns Anne Mc Shane

The anti-abortion lobby has gained confidence with the re-election of Bush. He has rewarded their support for his presidential campaign with the nomination of two new rightwing judges in the Supreme Court. Working together with the president, the aim of the 'pro-life' establishment is to make abortion illegal throughout the US by all manner of restrictions and partial bans.

And they have been preparing the ground well. Twenty-one states are likely to ban abortion if the Supreme Court gives them the chance. Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri and Montana have 'trigger laws' on their books which will automatically make abortion illegal with the overturning of Roe v Wade. The christian right has been psyching up for this moment for a long time. With their man in the White House, it is a crusade they are determined to win.

It is difficult enough to get an abortion in South Dakota already. It has only one abortion clinic, based in its capital, Sioux Falls. Doctors have to be flown in from other states to carry out abortions for the 800 women who request one every year. Out of a population of less than 700,000 this is not an insignificant number.

This situation is replicated throughout the mid-west and central belt. Attacks on abortion clinics and doctors have meant that many refuse to carry out terminations. The Supreme Court issued a judgement on February 28 to shield a vile organisation called Operation Rescue from prosecution for its demonstrations outside abortion clinics. It terrorises women and staff and has issued death threats to doctors. Unsurprisingly the Bush administration supported Operation Rescue's legal campaign against the National Organization for Women, which brought the case in an attempt to prevent the attacks.

The Republican right is brazen and confident. Meanwhile the Democrats are split and divided. They are painfully aware that the 'pro-life' vote mobilised hard to successfully win the election for Bush. They are also under pressure from their own anti-abortion pressure group, Democrats for Life, which aims to "make pregnancies wanted, whether planned or not". The Democrat leadership has gone from supporting pro-choice rallies prior to the election to maintaining a very significant silence in the present crisis.

The governor of South Dakota stands poised to sign the ban into law. If unchallenged it will take effect from July 1. A pro-choice campaign, Planned Parenthood, has vowed to make a challenge in the courts, but is said to have problems with funding. No such problems for the state.

This attack must be met politically and militantly. It cannot be left up to the courts. The working class movement in the US is extremely weak. But women's rights organisations do have a strong voice - with a demonstration of one million against attacks on abortion just before the last election. The left and all supporters of democratic rights must organise now to defeat these attacks. And we here in Britain must organise solidarity with the struggle in the US. This is a question for all of us - we must remain on our guard on this side of the Atlantic too.