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From: The Socialist issue 535, 28 May 2008: Build a new workers' party

Search site for keywords: Abortion - Women - Pro-life - Right to choose - 1967 Abortion Act

Women welcome abortion rights victory - now fight to extend rights

1,000 people joined a lively Abortion Rights Campaign protest opposite Parliament , photo Leah Jones and Anna Engelhardt

1,000 people joined a lively Abortion Rights Campaign protest opposite Parliament , photo Leah Jones and Anna Engelhardt

THE VARIOUS attempts to restrict rights to abortion, via amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology bill, ended in defeat on 20 May as MPs voted to keep the status quo (24-week upper limit).

Eleanor Donne

MPs had also voted earlier to allow the creation of 'saviour siblings' genetically matched to treat an older brother or sister, and 'hybrid embryos' for use in scientific research and to remove the requirement for IVF clinics to consider the 'need for a father' before allowing a medically assisted pregnancy.

As they debated, 1,000 people joined a lively Abortion Rights Campaign protest opposite Parliament - mostly young women but with good support from men too. Some older women who remember what life was like before the 1967 Abortion Act could especially relate to placards saying 'don't turn back the clock'.

1,000 people joined a lively Abortion Rights Campaign protest opposite Parliament , photo Leah Jones and Anna Engelhardt

1,000 people joined a lively Abortion Rights Campaign protest opposite Parliament , photo Leah Jones and Anna Engelhardt

The old slogan: "Not the Church, not the state, women should decide their fate" was also prominent - still relevant given Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor's outrageous comments comparing abortions to deaths in Nazi concentration camps.

The closest Commons vote was on the proposed reduction to 22 weeks, (304 against and 233 for - a majority of 71). This was the amendment seen as most likely to succeed, as anti-abortion groups focused on the issue of viability of the foetus. They used selective statistics to claim that survival rates for premature babies at 22 and 23 weeks have massively improved and so the current limit was unacceptable.

This has been widely refuted by evidence gathered by Parliament's Science and Technology Committee, that recommended that the upper limit stay at 24 weeks.

Anti-abortion groups recognise they will not win any attempts to outlaw abortion completely as support for the 'right to choose' in general remains very high. Groups such as the Pro-Life Alliance and the Alive and Kicking Campaign, used their considerable resources to bombard the media with misinformation, focusing on late abortions (post-20 weeks) and their view that abortion is 'too easy'.

There were a number of trade union banners present, photo Leah Jones and Anna Engelhardt

There were a number of trade union banners present, photo Leah Jones and Anna Engelhardt

This may have had an effect, as reflected in some polls specifically asking about late abortions. Because of this, anti-choice groups try to portray the parliamentary votes as evidence that MPs are out of step with what ordinary people think on abortion.

They may now pin their hopes on a Tory victory at the next election, or at least an increased number of Tory MPs, to get a vote through. Nadine Dorries, the Tory MP who moved the 20-week amendment (whilst bizarrely claiming to support a woman's right to choose) is persistent.

We cannot just breathe a sigh of relief that the vote is over. In many ways the campaign spearheaded by Abortion Rights became a defensive one - to hold on to what we've got. Their programme rightly calls for an extension of rights such as removing the need for two doctors' signatures, (which the British Medical Association describes as "out of step with the increasing emphasis on patient autonomy in all other areas of medicine") and allowing trained nurses to perform terminations.

1,000 people joined a lively Abortion Rights Campaign protest opposite Parliament , photo Leah Jones and Anna Engelhardt

1,000 people joined a lively Abortion Rights Campaign protest opposite Parliament , photo Leah Jones and Anna Engelhardt

Socialist Party members would add a vital demand that abortions be fully funded by the NHS, something that was never a commitment in the 1967 Act.

Given the Science and Technology committee's conclusion that there should be a review of the "two-signature rule", it is an indictment that apparently no Labour or even Liberal MP was prepared to seize the opportunity to put in a positive amendment on this.

The trade unions, many of whom are affiliated to Abortion Rights Campaign, missed a similar opportunity to launch a widespread campaign to defend and extend abortion rights, including a call for a national demonstration. It is important to counter the lies of the Pro-Life Alliance, SPUC and others and the trade unions have the strength and the financial resources to do this.

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Article dated 28 May 2008

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