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Reproductive Justice in the UK: Part 2

2011 March 3

Read Part 1 of this article here

I asked some leading UK pro-choice campaigners whether the US reproductive justice approach introduced in Part 1 is relevant to their work, and what – if anything – might be gained from creating a similar movement in Britain.

Shaming black women

Black British women are, according to Department of Health statistics, more likely to have an abortion than their white counterparts (source).  On the other side of the Atlantic there has been some especially poisonous anti-choice campaigning based around a similar difference. Georgia Right to Life posted 80 billboards around the city of Atlanta proclaiming “Black people are an endangered species”, with a website address: Loretta Ross, National Co-ordinator of SisterSong, described it as:

a misogynistic attack to shame-and-blame black women who choose abortion, alleging that we endanger the future of our children… Our opponents used a social responsibility frame to claim that black women have a racial obligation to have more babies – especially black male babies — despite our individual circumstances.

Alarmingly, the UK anti-choice movement has already begun to adopt some of the US campaigning messages about the ‘black genocide’. Lisa Hallgarten, Director of Education for Choice, reported that “the Marie Stopes International clinic in Brixton is routinely picketed by antis who claim that MSI is trying to kill black babies. I have seen leaflets that claim that Brook is a eugenic organisation.” This is just the latest trend in a pattern of UK anti-choicers adopting US campaigning tactics.Education for Choice Logo

Reproductive rights

I wanted to know whether the broader ‘reproductive rights’ approach had been adopted in the UK at all, by which I mean looking at contraception, sex education, adoption and the socioeconomic factors which impact on women’s decisions about whether or not to have children alongside calling for the right to safe, legal abortion.

Photo showing bright pink and white Abortion Rights banner being carried at an outdoor event with a pink balloon floating in the foregroundDarinka Aleksic, Abortion Rights Campaign Co-ordinator, said that “because British women do not experience the extremes of health inequalities on ethnic or economic grounds that women in the US do (although I’m not minimizing those that exist), the repro rights approach has not, in my opinion, been quite so vital or so relevant to our situation.”

Lisa agreed that a rights-based approach hasn’t been widely adopted: “Since UK policy can be made or broken by the Daily Mail it is hard to take an abstract political or human rights approach to these things”. But she was clear on some of the problems with the existing situation, including the emphasis on abortion as a medical issue:

The public health approach is fundamentally limited and limiting because it relies on scientific evidence supporting the role of abortion in public health. For me there is a point where personal autonomy may trump public health and we should always keep our commitment to autonomy at the forefront of discussion.

And the absence of universal high quality sex education:

Lack of sex education is a clear obstacle not just to the people who are young at that point in time, but to society getting better at talking about sex. I think, realistically, that some fundamental work needs to be done on coming to terms with human sexuality as a society before anyone will have the courage or funding to stand up in government and take a reproductive justice approach to these things.

Abortion rights and social justice

Finally I asked Lisa and Darinka if it would be helpful to put the campaign to protect and extend abortion rights in the UK in a wider context of social justice, and whether there was a risk of losing support in the medical establishment if it came to be seen as a campaigning issue rather than a question of health policy.

Lisa said that:

Our whole law was put in place to medicalise the procedure, put it under doctors’ control and protect doctors. I think there is a big danger of losing their support if they don’t feel ownership of it.

However, the greater danger is that we don’t have a broad grassroots movement to protect abortion rights in this country. If we built a reproductive justice movement we would have a much more broad-based constituency to come out fighting when our rights are up for grabs in the Commons.

Darinka explained that “Abortion Rights’ primary role is to defend the 1967 Abortion Act.” But also that:

As an organization that has strong links to the trade union movement, we are inclined to stress the importance of abortion access as an economic issue. It has always been working class women who have suffered from a lack of access to safe, legal abortion.

Public service and spending cuts are going to hit women hardest and the reorganization of the NHS raises real questions about how access to abortion and contraception services will be maintained. So we are campaigning against the cuts alongside other organizations on a broader social justice basis.

Reproductive justice for the UK?

After talking to Mara, Lisa and Darinka it became clear that there are opportunities for the UK pro-choice movement in the reproductive justice approach, although simply importing the US model wouldn’t work. In Britain public and medical establishment support for the right to choose is far greater, there are fewer differences in access to healthcare along lines of race or sexual orientation, and there is more state support for families.

However, the British sexual and reproductive health landscape is shifting. While the usual attacks on the Abortion Act are being launched in Westminster (and Abortion Rights tirelessly resists them) a few more developments have been added to the mix over the last year – including controversy around the sterilisation of drug addicts and those with severe learning disabilities, the end of the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy, mass popular protests against the Pope’s visit, the crisis in midwifery, and health professionals calling out shoddy sex education in the media.

While there are a whole range of fantastic organizations working variously to defend and extend abortion rights and access, to improve sex education and sexual health, to support families and advance LGBT and women’s rights, to fight racism and inequalities in access to or influence on public services, this work doesn’t take place under a shared banner of Reproductive Justice.

I am a campaigner; I understand the need to choose your battles and your targets carefully. But as the ideological reforms of what is essentially a Tory government start to bite, I wonder if the battle may be coming to us. Perhaps it’s time to build a movement and raise the flag.

One Response leave one →
  1. Michael S permalink
    March 3, 2011

    “…I wonder if the battle may be coming to us”

    Pretty much without a doubt, sadly.

    In terms of brutal polical calculation an abortion clinic is a much softer target for cuts than say, a childrens ward.

    Another challenge is abortion is an issue that cuts across standard right-left divisions as opposed to most other areas faced with cuts.

    Still, you can consider me a recruit and enthusiastic flag waver! (So long as it’s a Red one!)

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