After the decision of the US Supreme Court to overturn Roe v Wade, Hollie Wickens assesses what we can do in the UK to protect abortion rights.
The US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade, the historic ruling that protected a woman’s right to choose in the constitution, has shocked the world. As a woman, the idea that I could lose autonomy over my own body is horrifying. But we know that many, many other countries have restrictions on abortion – so why the focus on the US in particular? Cultural hegemony, yes, but also because this is a step backwards. This is the erosion of rights that women in the US already had. It is not to say that women in other countries whose right to choose is restricted are not worthy of our support and solidarity, but Roe v Wade poses a chilling prospect for those of us who may have taken our rights for granted.
It is essentially impossible for women in the UK to do anything about the US decision. This is a fight that women and men in the US need to have themselves, with our solidarity and what little support we can give. At the end of the day the US is its own nation, and we have battles at home that need our attention. Abortion is a patchwork across the UK, with differing laws in Scotland, England and Wales, and Northern Ireland. In England and Wales, abortion is still a crime. The Abortion Act 1967 was a landmark piece of legislation that finally allowed some circumstances in which women could have an abortion, but outside of these circumstances it is still an offence. Indeed, the Observer has found that women in England and Wales still face criminal investigations for the end of a pregnancy, whether that be miscarriage or by obtaining pills online. In Scotland there is no NHS health board that provides abortions up to the legal limit of 24 weeks, leaving women to have to journey to England to receive healthcare they are legally entitled to. Worse still, in Northern Ireland there is still no full provision of abortion. In this case, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis should be commended for the bold action he has been taking to ensure women in Northern Ireland can access abortions, but we cannot sit back and wait.
Policy change in the UK is historically incremental. We are far less likely to see huge, sweeping changes like that in the US. The Government and anti-abortion activists will not simply repeal the Abortion Act 1967. Instead, just take a look at an MP’s inbox. MPs receive thousands of campaign emails every month, but a regular and reliable presence is the anti-abortion activists pushing to make abortion harder to access. They wanted to stop early medical abortions being provided at home. They want to reduce the time limit. They want to introduce a law criminalising supposed ‘sex-selective’ abortion.
Anti-abortion campaigners in the UK have the ultimate goal of destroying women’s bodily autonomy, yes, but they know that the best way to achieve this will be to chip away at our existing rights until there are none left. We may not even see it coming.
So what can we do? The feminist in me wants abortion fully decriminalised, and available on demand for any woman; the Fabian in me says we need to think smarter. We need to safeguard the rights we already have, which is a unique challenge in the UK. With no codified constitution, a simple parliamentary majority is all that is needed to strip our rights away. So far Parliament has shown itself to be in favour of abortion, but it is by no means a settled question. There are still MPs who consistently vote to restrict abortion.
In France, this is an easier task. Similarly to the UK, abortion is permitted by law. After seeing how quickly the Supreme Court was able to tear away abortion rights from millions, however, French lawmakers are now looking to codify the right to abortion in their constitution. Such a safeguard would be a remarkable achievement that sadly now looks to be needed, and this is one to watch and learn from. Yet in the UK there is no ability to codify such a right. Instead, we need to be hypervigilant.
Write to your MP. It is very easily said, and you may not think it has an impact. But I can tell you, as someone who sees these campaign emails week after week, that when a large number of people are vocal on an issue, we notice it. I don’t believe for a second that the majority of voters in my MP’s constituency are anti-abortion, but we only receive one or two pro-abortion emails for every ten antis. I have no doubt about my employer’s conviction that women deserve bodily autonomy, but others may be swayed by each campaign, thinking some of the gradual restrictions sound reasonable.
If women in the UK learn anything from the struggle women in the US are facing, it must be that we can take nothing for granted. We have had to fight for our rights for centuries, and we cannot rest on our laurels. Abortion is healthcare. It is a fundamental right that we should be allowed to make decisions about our own bodies by the virtue of simply being human. Our rights are under attack. Whatever our scepticism around the Government’s plans for a British Bill of Rights, Stella Creasy’s idea of amending the Bill to include access to abortion is a vital one. We need to pay attention to our MPs’ actions, and make sure they know where women in the UK stand.
Hollie Wickens is the Secretary of the Young Fabians and works for a Labour MP. She tweets at @HollieWickens1.