Frontline volume 2, issue 1.

Abortion rights in the firing line as US legal battle looms

Pam Currie looks at the threat to women's rights posed by the US right.

Women’s rights to exert control over their own bodies and reproductive systems are under attack once more. The front line this time is the US mid-West state of South Dakota, which has just become the first state to ban abortion since the landmark 1973 Roe vs Wade case which legalised abortion across the US. The South Dakota Act is brutal in the extreme; abortion will only be permitted in cases where the woman’s life is in immediate danger, with no exceptions for rape, incest or permanent damage to health.

Frighteningly, South Dakota is far from the exception. In large parts of Africa, Latin America and Asia abortion is either completely outlawed or permitted only in exceptional circumstances. Closer to home, thousands of women from Northern and Southern Ireland are forced to travel to the UK or further afield for abortions denied them at home.

In contrast to popular belief, there is no ‘right’ to a legal abortion in the UK, or for the operation to be carried out on the NHS. Instead, if you are female and find yourself pregnant - because your school didn’t teach you safe sex, or you were too afraid to ask him to use a condom, you didn’t realise that antibiotics affect the contraceptive pill, or you thought that the reason you hadn’t had a period was because you’d started the menopause - you must convince two doctors that you should have an abortion.


Perhaps, some ‘pro-life’ opponents might say, you should have been more careful. It wouldn’t have happened if you had been more cautious (men, it seems, are always careful - somehow, it’s always the woman who slips up). Yet it happens all the time - to women that you know, to women in your street, your family, or in your workplace. One in three women in the UK will have an abortion at some point in their lives - eighteen in every one thousand women had one last year alone - yet it remains a stigma, a taboo, a burden to be carried for the rest of that woman’s life.

The vast majority of the UK’s two hundred thousand annual abortions occur under the ‘social’ rule, whereby a woman must convince both doctors that her physical and mental health, or the health of her existing children, would suffer if she were made to continue with her pregnancy. In the majority of cases, the reason given is that the woman’s mental health would suffer – effectively labelling the woman as someone ‘unfit’ to be a mother.

Convincing your doctor may not be straightforward: some ten per cent of practising GPs are anti-abortion, and while guidelines recommend that conscientious objectors refer on women seeking abortions, there is no legal obligation to do so. While ninety per cent of abortions conducted in the UK happen early in the pregnancy – before twelve weeks – far too many women are subjected to delays when they seek an abortion on the NHS. Up to forty per cent of woman are forced to pay for private medical care in order to obtain an abortion in some areas.

Backstreet death toll

Unsatisfactory as this situation is, it remains much better than the options facing our mothers and grandmothers before the 1967 Abortion Act gave limited legal access to abortion for women in most of the UK. In the 1920s and 30s, fifteen per cent of maternal deaths occurred as a result of ‘backstreet’ abortions. Worldwide, in the 21st century, nineteen million women a year have no option but to seek illegal, unsafe abortions – seventy thousand die as a result.

Yet despite the horrifying cost in women’s lives, abortion laws are under attack. In 1990, the maximum term at which an abortion could be carried out in the UK (other than when the mother’s health is in severe danger, or when the foetus has been found to have a severe abnormality) was reduced from twenty eight to twenty four weeks on the basis of medical arguments that technological advances had made delivery of a live baby at twenty eight weeks a viable possibility. With further advances in technology in the last fifteen years, anti-abortionists are stepping up pressure for further restrictions on this basis, using pictures of the foetus in the womb to further their cause. A poll in January this year found that forty seven per cent of women wanted to see the time limit reduced, with a further ten per cent opposed to abortion ‘under any circumstances’.

As well as the pictures of foetuses ‘smiling’ and ‘walking’, anti-abortion campaigners have fixated on other pseudo-scientific theories such as the claim that foetuses can feel pain and should be anaesthetised before late term abortions occur – a theory dismissed by psychologists as inaccurate and even dangerous – yet still under legislative consideration in the US. For Marxists, a foetus can at most be a biological entity; only after birth can it form the social relationships that define us as ‘human beings’. While the anti-abortion lobby describe themselves without a flicker of irony as ‘pro-life’, the reality is that their emotive, guilt-ridden language has precious little to do with the well being of the unborn child, and everything to do with controlling the bodies and lives of adult women.

In a further ironic twist, the restrictions sought by anti-abortionists, and successfully implemented in a number of US states including South Dakota, have had limited success in reducing the overall number of abortions, and have actually increased the number of late-term ‘partial birth’ abortions which the ‘pro-life’ brigade spend so much time campaigning against. In the UK, only a tiny minority (around 1.5 per cent) of abortions occur after twenty weeks, always as a last resort and usually when either the mother or the foetus’ health is in danger. The tragic case of Beverly West, a young woman from Aberdeenshire who was found guilty earlier this year of smothering her baby son after being told she was ‘too late’ at 20 weeks to have an abortion, highlights the need for legal late-term abortions. Too terrified to tell her parents she was pregnant, West suffered horrendous psychological problems when she was denied an abortion, with the worst possible consequences.

Class and Race

Reducing the twenty-four week time limit would have a negligible effect on abortion in the UK, and is at best a smokescreen for anti-abortion arguments. Restricting access to abortion is a class issue that affects the most vulnerable women the hardest – young women, those who are in abusive and non-consensual relationships, those who cannot afford to go private or to travel, and those with existing mental health problems. In the US in particular, it is also an issue of race.

A report in the Observer in April 2006 found that just two abortion clinics are still running in South Dakota and Mississippi, the two states with the most advanced anti-abortion legislation. In both, the users of the services are overwhelmingly young, black and poor, victims of an education system that preaches abstinence rather than effective contraception.

A further ten US states are preparing legislation which would deny women the right to abortion, and a total of forty four US states have restrictions on the national legislation passed in 1973. If the US Supreme Court were to reverse the 1973 ruling, abortion would immediately become illegal in twenty three states: mostly poor, rural states where inter-state travel is expensive and difficult.

Many US commentators believe that Roe vs Wade is still some way from being reversed, with challenge and counter-challenge likely to take several years to work through the courts, but the risks are clear. The US Supreme Court holds the key: it rules on the constitutionality of state laws, and if Bush and the neo-conservative Christian Right are to succeed in overturning a woman’s right to choose, the constitutional implications will require a ruling by this, the highest court of the American legal system. The Supreme Court is made up of nine judges, appointed for life by the President. Of the current nine, Republican presidents appointed five, and two by Bush himself. Pro-choice campaigners fear that were another ‘liberal’ judge to die and be replaced, the balance would be firmly swung to the right.

The Family

The looming legal battle in the US tells only part of the story. Denying women the means to control their reproductive systems, whether through safe, free contraception, effective sex education or, in the last resort, abortion – means denying women control over their own lives. Capitalism has long relied on the family not only to ensure the inheritability of private property but as a means of oppressing and controlling women, ensuring dependency on a male wage earner for survival. The extortionate cost of childcare - around £122 a week for a full time nursery place in Scotland, and low wages for women workers (an average of just £360 a week for a full time worker, over £100 a week less than men) plunges tens of thousands of lone parents, predominantly women, firmly below the poverty line. More than three-quarters of women who have abortions in the UK each year are single, faced with the impossible choice between an abortion or a lifetime of poverty.

While the ruling class have traditionally been able to rely on the Church to spread guilt, mistruths and stigma about abortion and contraception, the men in cassocks have seen their influence in the West trickling away for many years. Even in traditionally devout Ireland the tide is turning, with a majority of under-thirty fives supporting the legalisation of abortion. With religion losing its grip, the ruling class have sought out new means of infiltrating their ideology into our consciousness, most effectively through the mass media. The religious fanatics who parade pictures of aborted foetuses outside hospital gates must be rubbing their hands with glee at the coverage in many women’s glossies debating the rights and wrongs of abortion. And the backlash is about much, much more than the legal term, or the funding abortions on the NHS – it’s about women’s sexuality in general, and reproduction rights in particular. When the media are not castigating young women for having unwanted pregnancies, they’re creating unnecessary fear about the population time bomb, seemingly brought about single-handedly by the ‘selfish’ career women who have brought abortion rates to an all time high, waiting until their thirties or forties to start a family.

This constant negative bombardment affects all women – straight and gay, childless or not, married or single, denying them the right to make informed choices about their lives, castigating them for relationships made dysfunctional by the pressures of capitalism, and inextricably linking human sexuality to the neo-liberal agenda of maintaining a profit-based system at any cost.