How did an ethical issue become a political one?

The Independent, Thursday 4 October 2012

There is no obvious reason why so many Conservative MPs should be committed to restricting access to abortion. But they are, and there have been numerous attempts by Tory backbenchers to weaken the 1967 Abortion Act. In recent years, Nadine Dorries and Ann Winterton have been the standard-bearers in a campaign which goes back to 1977, when William Benyon introduced a Bill that would have significantly undermined the 10-year-old Act.

Since the 1967 Act was introduced, abortion has been a largely party-political matter, with Tory MPs using a series of legislative devices to try to limit abortion rights. For a party that claims to be keen on personal freedom, Tory backbenchers have always been remarkably keen to interfere in women’s private lives.

In fact, it’s perfectly possible to imagine a libertarian case for allowing adult women to make up their own minds. Telling women they shouldn’t have abortions should sit uneasily with right-wing notions of minimal state interference, but the Tories have never resolved their wider conflicts about gender. Right-wing rhetoric about “family values”¬† usually ends up infantilising women, telling them what’s good for them instead of asking what they want.

What’s different now is that the movement to restrict access to abortion has shifted from the back benches into the Cabinet. Maria Miller, the minister for Women and Equalities, has barely begun the job before giving an interview calling for the upper time limit to be
reduced. Jeremy Hunt has been promoted to Health Secretary and his voting record suggests he’s even keener to reduce the limit.

If this signals the arrival of US-style abortion wars in British politics, it’s very bad news. Religion plays a much greater role in American political life, and opponents of abortion there are massed on the religious right. Mitt Romney has opposed offering emergency¬† contraception to rape victims, and his vice-presidential running mate, Paul Ryan, is against abortion even in cases of rape and incest. David Cameron must realise British women won’t allow their rights to be eroded without a fight.

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