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What Will This Government Mean for Women's Reproductive Choice?

22/05/2015 08:02 BST | Updated 21/05/2016 10:59 BST
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The anti-abortion movement in Britain has largely failed. The public is pro-choice, and indeed favours a more woman-centred framework than the 1967 Abortion Act currently allows. Every parliamentary attempt in recent years to restrict access to abortion has been defeated. All should be well. But the new government has many members who voted in favour of these defeated restrictions. Indeed, their voting records suggest this is the most anti-abortion government in living memory. So what will this mean for women in the next five years?

Of those members of the government who were MPs when the abortion time limit was last debated in 2008, more voted to reduce it to 12 weeks than retain the current limit of 24 weeks. They did this in the knowledge that women requesting abortions at later gestations tend to be in heartbreaking situations and in desperate need of help from healthcare professionals. Many, including one of our new health ministers, also voted in favour of legal proposals which would have diverted women seeking abortion advice to unregulated, anti-abortion counselling services. And more than 40 voted for new restrictions on the Abortion Act at the end of the last parliament which women's groups said would harm some of the most vulnerable members of our ethnic minority communities.

It is noteworthy that those MPs who spearheaded and supported restrictions on abortion in the last parliament while claiming to be interested in "protecting" women also showed zero interest in measures that genuinely would help pregnant women. Women are caused immense distress by the activity of anti-abortion campaigners outside pregnancy advice and abortion clinics, yet anti-abortion MPs have refused to condemn the ongoing intimidation of British women by groups such as Abort67 and 40 Days for Life. Those MPs who have urged restrictions on abortion for foetal anomaly have done absolutely nothing to support charities' calls for fortification of flour with folic acid - which would dramatically reduce the number of pregnancies diagnosed with neural tube defects like spina bifida - most of which end in the termination of a much wanted pregnancy.

But here's the good news. There are many pro-choice MPs across all parties who are willing to defend women's ability to make their own decisions - including in the Cabinet. The Chancellor, George Osborne, is one example. Abortion is treated as "conscience" issue in parliament, which means in principle MPs are free to vote according to their beliefs. So what matters most will be the views of the 182 new MPs, which we will likely know little about until they are tested in parliament. Many of them will be pro-choice, and perhaps proudly so, even if others may plan to vote to restrict women's access to abortion at the first available opportunity.

george osborne

The Chancellor, George Osborne, is a strong supporter of women's reproductive rights

And some may feel that, while they think abortion is wrong, they wouldn't legislate to stop others doing what they think is right. And this perhaps is precisely the point. Our politicians have every right to their own personal views on abortion - the question is how far their own moral convictions should trump the moral convictions of the women who must bear a pregnancy, and the consequences of that pregnancy - whether she decides to continue or end it.

One in three British women will have an abortion. Millions of UK women have had one. It is a part of women's reproductive lives, a normal part of their healthcare. The women who have abortions are the same women who have children. Yet unlike any other healthcare procedure, abortion sits within the criminal law, meaning healthcare professionals and women can be prosecuted for an abortion that falls outside of the Abortion Act. Calls by anti-abortion politicians for doctors to be prosecuted - not because they haven't provided excellent clinical care for women but because they have not correctly filled in the legal paperwork that is unique to abortion - inevitably make some doctors think twice before entering this field. That is not good for women needing care.

Generally people are horrified by the suggestion that a woman who induces her own miscarriage without the permission of 2 doctors - even at the earliest gestation - could be sent to prison. But that is the law of the land. Laws send a message as well as having practical consequences. What message do our abortion laws, which deny women the right to make their own decisions about their own bodies, send about the legal status of women today?

Hundreds of thousands of women will have an abortion in the course of this parliament. Rather than finding new ways to make life more difficult for them, how welcome it would be if this parliament sought to provide the social and economic climate where women can make the decisions that are right for them when faced with an unexpected pregnancy, while leaving the decision making firmly to women themselves.

Clare Murphy is director of external affairs at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service