UK: The Right Wants To Set The Clock Back On Abortion And Gay Rights. I Say: Hands Off
Why is allowing people control over their own sexuality something that so many conservatives do not like?
With David Cameron's patina of social liberalism shining brightly even in the most improbable of circumstances, it is easy to forget we are in the midst of a deeply illiberal era. Yes, I know the "country has gone to the dogs" schtick. I hear them barking. The Tory party has been hijacked by wet, drippy types and real Tories want their party back. Still, below the radar all kinds of deeply reactionary proposals are being ushered through this parliament.
America's much-vaunted culture wars never materialized here, as we lack the Christian right of the US, but we do have our own homegrown evangelicals. These people are quite desperate to set the clock back on everything from abortion to gay rights. These may be quite separate issues, but somehow both are threats to the nuclear family. Why is allowing people control over their own sexuality something that so many conservatives do not like? These are the same people who bemoan the nanny state, but would stop women deciding when they want to reproduce. The conservative party at prayer (the CofE) – though Rowan Williams appears now on its provisional wing – is still getting its knickers in a twist over gay marriage. Meanwhile, earth-shatteringly, Brian Sewell, the world's poshest man, has watched Coronation Street and is appalled at its rampant homosexuality, asking if Manchester is now the "Sodom of the north". I do hope so, as I am going there for this year's Tory party conference.
This assault on gay rights and abortion rights is part of the obsession with the unarguable but abstract concept of the "traditional family". Politicians pay lip service to the fact that families come in all varieties, but then spend inordinate amounts of time trying to engineer us into the nuclear fantasy. This societal ideal requires an enormous amount of buttressing, but there you are.
Why people doing what they like privately is so deeply undermining to "the family" is a mystery to me. But I am liberal, and accept that conservatives come in many different forms. They often profess to care deeply about women. Especially young women of the underclass who need saving from themselves. MPs Nadine Dorries and Frank Field are such people, and have tabled amendments to the health and social care bill. Their proposals on new counselling requirements for women seeking abortions pave the way for anti-choice organisations to intervene. Their argument is that abortion providers have a vested interest in encouraging women to proceed with terminations. This does not tally at all with my experience of having an abortion, or being with someone having one. The counselling was something to be got through, as my mind had been made up. I did not need to be questioned on whether I wanted another child or whether my mother could help out, as she was dead.
Did I want to carry a baby to term and have it adopted? No, I didn't. Not because adoption is bad – in fact, my mother was left in a Salvation Army hostel at the age of six months – but it was not right for me in any way. Martin Narey, former head of Barnado's, has also swung into the argument, describing adoption as a "golden option". Of teenage mothers, which are the girls he seems to be talking about, he says, "Adoption should be a third option to abortion or keeping the child."
Yes, it's true that once abortion became legal in 1967, fewer babies were put up for adoption. But to make women go through pregnancy and give up their babies smacks of inhumanity. It happened in the good old days, and it happens in America. It happened when I had my first child. The woman in the next bed to me was young, but her labour was short, and she showed me how to change a nappy when I was clueless. Three days after giving birth she took to her bed and wept and wept. The nurses said it was because she had been brought the wrong lunch. But I knew why, and I and her parents were the only ones who did. She told me that she had got pregnant at 14, been sent away, had the child and been forced to give it up. Years later, in a happy relationship and having given birth to her lovely baby, she was grieving the secret loss of her first. It was devastating to behold. I still think of her.
Dorries, as we know, wants to turn back the clock on sex education, preaching abstinence. I won't say too much about her, as she asked on her blog: "Suzanne Moore. Mad or bad?" A former colleague asked if he could tick both boxes. Suffice to say, Dorries and her allies are pushing an anti-choice agenda on abortion. The discussion on late abortion is always difficult – 147 were carried out last year. The circumstances of these cases are horrible. They often involve domestic abuse, foetal abnormality and mental illness. The British Medical Association supports keeping the limit at 24 weeks. No one pretends this is easy, but late abortion, though rare and traumatic, is one of the propaganda tools of the anti-abortionists. So too are the pictures of the cute babies born with cleft palettes, though often scans picking these up also pick up other, more serious abnormalities. Medical facts are short on the ground here. The line of counselling that Dorries and Field want to promote will tell women that abortion increases their chances of cancer and may lead to infertility. If any of us need to be reminded what happens when you make abortion illegal, we either go back to the time when young women died of septic abortion, or indeed look at Ireland, which merely exports the problems. Twelve women a day from that small country come here for abortions.
In all the years of pro-choice events I have attended, I have seen a real change in attitudes. This is not reflected by this government, which is seeking to push through these anti-choice counselling proposals without legislation or debate. There is a demo today, and it will be interesting to see how the atmosphere is altered. When I went to speak-outs in the 80s and 90s, it was all very confessional, even teary. Now women stand up without shame and say, "Yes, I have had an abortion. And what a great relief it was." Some feel guilt for not feeling guilty.
Be aware that those pursuing the anti-abortion line are also those who want to reinterpret sex education so that children are taught only about traditional families, and that the only context for sex is within marriage. And sex, of course, means only heterosexual sex. They are not interested in telling young people facts about their rights, as well as their responsibilities, around whatever kind of sex they want to have. Abstinence, heterosexuality and marriage is what is being preached. My moral position is not theirs. I want people to be given unbiased information. Those who seek to control their own bodies, whether gay or straight, male or female, mothers or child-free women, need to make common cause.
Under cover of economic crisis, those who would push back your hard-won rights advance in the shadows. The right wants the right to regulate what you and I may do. I say, get your hands off my body. This is a violation, make no mistake.