Thursday, October 09, 2008

British Women (and Men) - Your Help Needed Now

I went to a meeting last night at the House of Commons about abortion rights and the up-coming amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. At the meeting I heard some very moving stories about the experience of women in Northern Ireland. For instance a woman who was told after having a child that if she became pregnant again she could lose her eyesight. Then her contraception failed but under Northern Irish law since she only MIGHT go blind she was not able to access abortion. Instead in desperation she borrowed money from a loan shark to pay to travel to England for a private abortion, leaving her life further at risk from trying to pay back the cost (which typically ranges from £600 to £2000) at interest rates of 150%. Another story was about a pro-choice meeting in a poor urban area to which a large group of young women came. One of them was heavily pregnant, the rest her family and friends. She had been told by doctors months earlier that the child she was carrying was so seriously disabled that there was no way it would survive at all after birth. But since it wasn't putting her life at risk she was not allowed an abortion and was being forced to carry the dying fetus to full term.

I didn't even realise until quite recently that the 1967 act which legalised abortion in England, Wales and Scotland did not extend to Northern Ireland. Abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland unless the mother's life is at risk. There is no exception made for rape or incest victims. 6217 women who gave addresses in Ireland had an abortion in Britain last year, others travel to Holland or Belgium and some have been known to order abortion-inducing medicines online, which is dangerous both because not all websites selling such things are safe and also because women convicted of causing an abortion in Northern Ireland can face long prison terms. Since 1967 five women are known to have died as a result of backstreet abortions in Northern Ireland. This means of course that the system effectively just penalises those women without the financial means to go overseas for their termination. In the next two weeks we have a once-in a-generation chance to change that.

Diane Abbott has tabled an amendment to the HFE Bill which will be voted on on Oct 22nd which would extend the 1967 abortion act to cover Northern Ireland.

You can help to ensure that this legislation goes through. Firstly, and most importantly - write to your MP. Just click here and put in your postcode and the site will allow you to do it all online. Alternatively write to them at the House Of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA. You can put it in your own words or copy a model letter from the Abortion Rights website here. And once you've done that there are three more people you can reasonably write to... You can write to Diane Abbott and thank her for putting the amendment forward, you can write to Gordon Brown (10 Downing Street and/or by signing this petition) and ask him to support the modernisation of the abortion law, he's pretty desperate for public approval at the moment and his backing would make it much easier for other Labour Party MPs to back the amendments. And finally you can write to Harriet Harman ( who is Minister for Women and urge her to put her weight behind the amendments (rather than wimping out and abstaining).

Oh and of course you can also forward this to your friends and family and encourage them to do the same. We have a two week window to sort this out, what happens now will be with us for years to come.

Thanks for reading this and taking action. It's so important we do it right now!

PS. Here's some stuff you may have heard elsewhere:

1) Shouldn't the Northern Irish politicians make the decisions about what happens in Northern Ireland? No. This is about human rights. Women cannot hope for equality in our society until they have full rights over their own bodies. When Northern Irish politicians tried to get an exception to the anti-discrimination laws covering homosexuality - we over-ruled because it was a human rights issue. Also when other amendments covering abortion in England, Wales and Scotland were voted on a few months ago - the Northern Irish MPs all voted to restrict abortion rights for other women in the UK even though it did not affect N.I.

2) But if the people of Northern Ireland don't want abortion rights, why should we force them on them? A majority of people in Northern Ireland do support abortion rights for women. It's just their politicians who are stuck in the 19th century.

3) I can't support abortion because of my religion. The nearest the bible comes to mentioning abortion is in Isaiah where it says if two men are fighting and a woman is hit causing her to miscarry the man who hit the woman must pay a fine to the woman's husband. I'm not sure that's the law we need but it would actually be better than the one we've got. Anyway the bible says you shouldn't blaspheme, eat shellfish or share a bed with your husband during your period. Should we pass these as laws and enforce them with lengthy prison sentences? Do we want a country where people of non-christian faiths and of no religion are forced to practice fundamentalist Christianity by law? Even when they are pregnant following incestuous rape? Really?

4) Could this affect the peace process? Oh come on. If this was about the sectarian divide in N. I. you would expect that the Unionists would want to have the same laws as England, Wales and Scotland. They don't, politicians on both sides oppose abortion rights for women.

5) I heard they did a deal over the 42 days detention. This may be true - we don't know. There is a rumour that Gordon Brown may have offered the Northern Irish politicians a "deal" that if they support his 42 day detention laws, he will encourage his party to block abortion rights in N.I. Oh good so the rights of police suspects are trampled all over AND the rights of women in N.I. to chose what happens to their own bodies are trampled all over. Lets reject the 42-day detention thing AND insist on abortion rights for women in N.I.

6) The HFE Bill isn't the right place to amend abortion law. The 1967 abortion law is significantly out of date. Not only with the exception made for Northern Ireland but also the requirement in the rest of the UK for two doctors signatures (you don't even need two doctor's signatures for triple heart bypass surgery), that nurses can't prescribe abortion pills (though they can prescribe may much more complicated drug treatments and if the law was changed in this area many women would have much less distance to travel to access abortion services) and the law which says that medical abortion cannot be completed at home (women have to take the pills in a clinic and either wait there around four hours until the induced miscarriage starts or risk heading home knowing bleeding could start at any time). Since it came in there has been only one opportunity to update it - in 1990. This is the second opportunity to do so we've had in over 40 years. These
things come round once in a generation, we could soon have a Tory government and people like Ann Widdicombe will be straight on their high horses seizing every opportunity to rip women's rights away from them. We've got to do it now. If we can get it onto the HFE Bill - great. Oh and by the way there are also other amendments tabled which would do away with the two doctors business and allow nurses to administer medical abortions and women to take the tablets at home if they prefer. See the abortion rights website for info on supporting those amendments too.

7) The government will do the right thing won't they? I can't really make any difference can I? The tiny minority of anti-choice campaigners in the UK have massive resources and apparently limitless energy. MPs have been sent plastic foetuses in carrier bags. Mailbags are filling up with angry letters calling those who promote women's rights "murderers" and worse. We are the majority and we need to let politicians know we support women's rights, that the issue is important to us and ask them to do the same.

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