Both sides lose

Genuine Marxists express the need to contextualise abortion programmatically in political and economic spheres. Ted North reports recent debates

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Bill was approved by the House of Commons on October 22 despite the opposition of former minister and Opus Dei member Ruth Kelly, who was one of 16 Labour MPs to vote against.

The fact that research on human and animal embryos, including hybrids, has now been liberalised, that lesbians and single women will now be able to undergo IVF treatment more easily, and that it will be legal for parents to opt for the fertilisation of specific embryos in order to aid seriously ill siblings are all measures that we welcome.

However, amendments moved by pro-choice MPs which would have allowed abortion to be carried out without the approval of two doctors, extended partial abortion rights to Northern Ireland and allowed nurses and other trained healthcare practitioners to carry out abortions, amongst other progressive proposals, were scuttled by the deliberately small amount of time allocated to the debate. As a result of the bureaucratic manoeuvrings of Harriet Harman, minister for women and equality, and her slimy colleagues, the abortion laws remain unchanged.

The official reason for the government’s inaction is that such changes would be defeated in the House of Lords and access to abortion therefore actually reduced. However, Brown and co need to keep their promises in particular to the Ulster Unionists, in exchange for the latter’s votes in favour of the government’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to introduce detention without charge for up to 42 days.

Nevertheless, the amendments proposed by both sides of the abortion debate give a clear indication of the battles ahead. The most prominent anti-choice proposal was for a compulsory seven-day “cooling off” period between a woman requesting an abortion and the procedure being performed.

We need to be clear that many in the anti-abortion camp are opposed to it as a matter of principle. The focus on (rare) late abortions and the supposed ‘ease’ of obtaining a termination represent an example of the ‘salami tactic’ – the ultimate aim is presumably a complete ban.

The political context of the abortion debate is every day catalysed by the sensationalist crap pedalled by the reactionary media, fed by such unpleasant groups as the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children.

My favourite example of the indignation of the (primarily) Christian right is the statement that the HFE Bill was “one of the most destructive pieces of legislation that we will see in our lifetime. It is anti-life, anti-family and anti-god. It will liberalise abortion law, create animal-human hybrids and create fatherless families unless we pray and act to stop it” (

Clearly, bourgeois society is deeply divided by the abortion debate. Even with a Labour majority in parliament, the proposal in May to reduce the time limit to 22 weeks was only defeated by 304 to 233 votes in the House of Commons. Who knows what would happen under a Conservative government (still more than possible despite the ‘Brown bounce’)?

Whilst large sections, particularly those associated with the traditional pillars of the church and the Tories, are deeply opposed to abortion, a significant ‘modernising’ wing of ‘respectable society’ favours liberalisation. This is demonstrated by a recent letter to The Times, signed by 85 academic lawyers, philosophers and medical experts, which called, among other things, for the abolition of the requirement for two doctors’ signatures before a termination can be performed (October 17).

The 1967 Abortion Act allowed terminations in the first 28 weeks of pregnancy, as long as (normally) two doctors agree it is medically or socially necessary. This already limited legislation, which certainly did not enshrine the fundamental idea of a woman’s right to choose, has been under attack ever since. The 1967 legislation was introduced in the context of the major social changes which were taking place in the 1960s and 70s, resulting in legislation on a number of issues, such as the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality (1967) and the reform of divorce (1969). Communists view such partial changes as temporary concessions by the bourgeois state, not set in stone. These are nevertheless clearly more desirable than the situation in counties such as El Salvador, where abortion is illegal without exception. Even if a woman’s life is endangered, a healthcare worker who performs an abortion may face a jail sentence running into double figures in terms of years.

In Britain the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act amended the 1967 provisions, principally by reducing the time limit to 24 weeks, apart from in exceptional cases. In practice it is generally difficult to have an abortion on the NHS after around 18 weeks (and often considerably less), and in many areas women frequently opt for an expensive private termination rather than being forced to wait for NHS procedure to be exhausted. Repeated private members bills have called for changes to the law, all of which have so far been defeated. Opinion polls produce greatly differing levels of support, and are not as clear-cut as either side of the debate make out.

What has been the response of the ostensibly revolutionary left to recent developments? Many readers will no doubt remember the treacherous behaviour of the Socialist Workers Party under Lindsey ‘shibboleth’ German and John Rees, who were prepared to sacrifice fundamental rights such as abortion to court George Galloway and the Muslim Association of Britain.

The SWP’s only response to the failure of last week’s pro-choice amendments was that “women’s rights campaigners have reacted with fury” (Socialist Worker October 25). There is no real questioning of the sham democracy of the British state. No recognition that concessions such as limited abortion rights are temporary phenomena, which can only be made permanent by working class power.

In previous articles Socialist Worker has meekly called for the defence of existing provisions (eg, February 9 and May 4), while an online-only article calls for the “extension” of existing provisions, although what form such extensions may take remain unspoken ( In recent weeks the same author, Sadie Robinson, suggests that pro-choice activists should “contact their MPs”, particularly “trade union-sponsored MPs” (October 18). What profound tactical guidance the supposed ‘vanguard’ offers the proletariat.

The Socialist Party at least clearly calls for the extension of existing provisions. Yet its only substantive demand not raised by cross-class formations such as Abortion Rights, towards which both the SWP and SP are essentially uncritical, is that abortion should be fully funded by the NHS – something to be voted through by MPs following trade union pressure (The Socialist October 15).

To genuine Marxists the key point with the abortion issue is to contextualise it in the wider political and economic sphere, and to link it, as all issues, into a programme through which the working class will win the battle for democracy and power. Of course, this approach is completely absent in a group whose strategic aim is the creation of a Labour Party mark two with the aid of trade union bureaucrats.

What should the communist perspective be? Clearly the debate needs to be steered away from the pseudo-scientific focus it has acquired. The real issue is women’s position in society. Abortion allows a woman to control at least an element of her life (as far as possible within a system of wage-slavery). Safe and legal abortion should be available as early as possible and as late as necessary – without limitations such as the requirement for the agreement of two doctors.

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