Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Judith Orr - Abortion Wars: The Fight for Reproductive Rights

Judith Orr's book could not be better timed. With abortion rights in Ireland the subject of an upcoming referendum and Trump's desire to roll back key abortion legislation, the issue is once again part of the political mainstream. Orr's new book charts the history of this fight and the context for today's renewed struggles with a focus on Britain and the US, but also surveying the situation across the world.

She begins the book by pointing out that despite abortion being a common part of women's lives, (about one third of women will have an abortion) it remains a subject very much surrounded by taboos demonstrated recently when a radical left MP in Dublin became on of the first sitting politicians to admit to having an abortion.

Throughout history women have tried to control their fertility. Abortion is one example of this, and in a fascinating chapter, Orr shows numerous examples stretching back to ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece of how women have tried to do this, often through the consumption of plants or drinks that had an abortive affect. She quotes a 2nd century writer on gynaecology describing a prescription that "expels a foetus of three months without any difficulty" and also a study from the 1960s of three hundred "pre-industrial" societies that showed how women worldwide often took drastic steps to end a pregnancy, including "climbing a rope then jumping, or being buried up to their waists, or having hot stones or event hot ashes placed on their bellies".

Such practises were extremely dangerous and no woman would do these on a whim, so no wonder then that historic writings show a "common theme of advice, shared knowledge and skills being reproduced about how to avoid or end unwanted pregnancies". In more modern times this has led to what Orr calls a "web of solidarity" as women (and men) have organised to assist women making the choice to have an abortion. When abortion is restricted or illegal women turn to more dangerous options and Orr has uncovered some horrific stories of the modern consequences of this. In a series of fascinating interviews Orr shows how the fear of backstreet abortions led women to organise to provide advice and assistance.

This is no more true than of Ireland and the story of how people in England organised to assist the numerous women who needed to travel to the UK for abortion is deeply moving. From these beginnings grew a movement that in the 1960s, amid wider radicalisation and struggles for women's rights, helped win the British 1967 Abortion Act. While Orr shows that this legislation (even before amendments) was never as wide as it should have been, it was still a significant victory. The struggles to win the act are amazing, but so were the movements to defend it, culminated in a massive mobilisation of the trade union movement in 1979 which "knocked back the anti-abortionists for years".

Despite the lies and rhetoric of the right and the anti-abortionists "abortion on demand is not a reality" and the vast majority of abortions take place early in a pregnancy. But there has been real success from the right in demonising abortion and creating a stigma around it. The fact that few people talk about abortion leads many to believe it is only a few who have one. This is why abortion rights movement could arise out of a mass movement for women's liberation, in part because it allowed women to discuss these issues and get organised around them. In one of the interviews in the book a woman recalls going to a women's meeting and being approached afterwards by many of the attendees to talk about their experiences or those of a friend or family member.

The link between women's rights and abortion rights is a key theme to Orr's book. She argues that abortion rights and the right of a woman to control her own body cannot be separated from wider women's rights.  She explains,
The experiences of women several millennia ago, through to the early campaigners and those who documented the lived experiences of working-class women, are still valid to this very day. They taught us that women cannot play a full role in society while they can't control their fertility. They also showed that whatever the law and state of medical knowledge, working-class women have consistently been denied the best available birth control and abortion services that wealthy women have always been able to access.
This class question is important. Orr shows how even with supportive legislation, poorer women still cannot access care as easily as those with money. One of the strategies of the anti-abortionists has been to make it harder for women to travel to centres, to need more medical "opinions" and multiple visits for what might actually be a relatively quick procedure. This is particularly the case in the United States and the sections on the challenges faced to women looking for advice or abortion in the US, and those who want to offer support and medical assistance are shocking.

While the book was upsetting in places and emotional, I was also left with a real sense of hope. Orr shows us that struggle by women and men has won real gains in many countries, and recent examples from places like South Korea and Poland are part of this. Despite Trump wanting to undermine legislation and right-wing populists around the world attacking women's rights there is a sense in Orr's book that if we learn from the past we can defeat the bigots today and make real gains in the future. In the British parliament in 1967 Labour MP Christopher Price summed up the struggle that had led to the Abortion Act:
The Bill will pass into law because of the demands of public opinion. When I have mixed with people both inside and outside the House who want the Bill, it has often occurred to me that this is not about abortion at all; it is part of the process of emancipation of women which has been going on gradually for over a very long period.
The public opinion behind the Bill is millions of women up and down the country who are saying 'We will no longer tolerate this system whereby men lay down, as though by right, the moral laws, particularly those relating to sexual behaviour, about how women should behave.
What was true in the 1960s is as true today, and Judith Orr's book is a powerful weapon in the hands of those who want to defend and extend the rights of women to control their lives and their bodies.

Related Reviews

Orr - Marxism and Women's Liberation
Orr - Sexism and the System
Rowbotham - Hidden from History

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