Theresa May Is Playing Politics With Women's Bodies
The Debrief: Our Prime Minister is most definitely not a feminist. People up and down this country should be very concerned by that.
Over the last week, a spotlight has been shone on the United Kingdom’s abortion laws. A hung parliament, the prospect of a partnership between the Conservatives and the DUP and the appointment of a Justice Secretary who, to put it lightly, has a troubling record on abortion have all pushed abortion back up the agenda. The fact that it’s taken this cacophony of catastrophes to get us even muttering about abortion rights speaks volumes because, for quite some time, the silence has been deafening.
The women of Northern Ireland, where the 1967 Abortion Act does not apply, have long been being denied what the United Nations class as ‘a basic human right’. It is a right which the women of England, Scotland and Wales have and despite the turn of events we’ve seen in the aftermath of last week’s election continues to settle, we still aren’t talking about the situation our sisters in Northern Ireland find themselves in loudly enough.
It’s 2017 and there is a woman in Number 10. A woman who once posed in a ‘this is what a feminist looks like t-shirt’ and founded an initiative called ‘Women 2 Win’ who’s sole aim was getting more women elected to parliament. When asked if she was a feminist back in 2012, she said ‘some people don’t like the term feminist because they think it portrays a certain type of woman. To me, it’s about ensuring there’s a level playing field and equal opportunity.’
And yet, despite her avowedly feminist credentials, Theresa May is prepared to do a deal with a political party who are creationist to the extent that they do not believe in dinosaurs and consistently anti-abortion. How can women ever have a level playing field if they cannot end unwanted or problematic pregnancies? How will women ever have equal opportunities with men if they do not have autonomy when it comes to their own bodies?
As if an alliance with the DUP wasn’t bad enough, May has appointed David Lidington as Secretary of State for Justice. As Sian Norris points out in Prospect, we’ve heard a lot about the concern people have over Lidington’s record on gay rights (he repeatedly voted against equal marriage in 2013 and has said on record that ‘marriage is for the procreation of children’), but we’ve heard very little about his stance when it comes to abortion.
As an MP, representing the people of Aylesbury since 1992, Lidington has consistently voted with what has historically been called the ‘pro-life lobby’. It’s high time we started to call them what they are: the anti-choice, anti-women lobby. In line with the beliefs of the anti-choice, anti-women lobby, our new Secretary of State for Justice has voted the following way on abortion:
- To reduce the upper time limit on abortion to 12 weeks. In fact, every time there has been a vote on abortion he has voted to reduce the limit.
- In favour of banning abortion providers from offering counselling services and in favour of making these services independent
How could a feminist Prime Minister tacitly condone these beliefs? It’s clear that Theresa May’s feminism is not a fundamental part of who she is, instead, it is conditional. In her eyes, it has become clear that women’s rights are less important than shoring up her own power. Our Prime Minister is turning a blind eye to women’s rights in order to save herself and it is sending a message to the women of this country about how much their government values them. Being pro-women and powerful in politics shouldn’t be mutually exclusive concepts, as long as they are for Theresa May progress on equality is effectively on pause.
Yesterday, our Supreme Court voted against an appeal from a Northern Irish mother and daughter who were trying to make the case that women travelling from Northern Ireland to the rest of the United Kingdom should be able to access free abortion services once here. The 15-year-old girl at the centre of this case travelled to a clinic in Manchester with her mother five years ago and had to pay £900 for a termination. Her story is not unique; it is the story of thousands of women who cannot access abortion services at home. More than this, it is the story of the women who cannot afford to leave Ireland to access abortion and so are forced to take matters into their own hands by ordering abortion pills online, carry an unwanted or problematic pregnancy to term and, in the most extreme cases, see their own lives put at risk. This is the story of women in Northern Ireland being endangered and criminalised by anachronistic and draconian abortion laws while Westminster does nothing.
As Grainne Teggart, the Campaign Manager for Amnesty International said yesterday ‘this is a further blow to women from Northern Ireland, who already face some of the harshest abortion laws in Europe. This ruling means that women and girls from Northern Ireland will continue to be treated as second class citizens. As ever, it is the most marginalised women who will be worst affected.’
The Supreme Court’s ruling stated that the buck stops at the door of Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Health. He has the legal authority to grant women from Northern Ireland NHS-funded abortion care in England and he has refused to do so because, in his view, England must ‘respect’ the democratic decisions of Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly.
Where is the respect for Northern Ireland’s women in all of this? Our Prime Minister and her government are playing politics with women’s bodies and too many people are quietly ignoring it. Why? Because this is a ‘women’s issue’ isn’t it? Just like the tampon tax, period poverty, the serious problems with the contraceptive pill or the cuts to midwifery services, it ‘only’ affects women and therefore any implications are merely collateral damage in more ‘serious’ and important political decisions.
What happens to women’s bodies is seen as a private and personal issue. Abortion, periods contraceptive-induced mental illness and giving birth are all still taboo topics and this needs to change. When LGBT rights are under threat there are plenty of commentators and politicians, male and female, who are ready to stand up and say ‘I’m gay, enough is enough’ but it’s not deemed acceptable for a woman in public life to say ‘I had an abortion and it saved my life, we must protect a woman’s right to choose’. This shame, stigma and silence must be consigned to the history books once and for all.
There’s no doubt that our country finds itself in a precarious position following last year’s EU referendum result but that does not mean that fundamental women’s rights should slip down our list of national priorities. This is about who we are as a nation, the fact that we are leaving the European Union makes it more important than ever. Women’s rights in the United Kingdom, from Northern Ireland to Scotland, from Wales to England, must not be optional.
Our Prime Minister is most definitely not a feminist, she proved this on the campaign trail and she is reinforcing her lack of feminist credentials now that she’s back in office. People up and down this country should be very concerned by that. It shouldn't have taken a hung parliament to put abortion back on the agenda but now that it has we must make sure this conversation continues to happen in public, not private.
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