Pass the Baton of Freedom: demand safe, free and unrestricted access to abortion

The Left Unity Women’s Caucus, together with My Belly is Mine and Abortion Rights, hosted a London meeting on Sunday 11 May to discuss how to support the growing campaign initiated by the Party of the European Left against the Spanish state’s attempt to roll back abortion rights. More than a dozen women attended.

Pass the Baton of Freedom has mobilised across Europe to protest against this attack on women’s right to choose. Despite some partial and progressive reforms enacted by the centre-left Partido Socialistas Obreros Español, such as a reform relating to the voluntary termination of pregnancy in 2010, the right has gained the upper hand in Spain. On 20 December 2013 the ruling party, Partido Popular, proposed a draft bill, which has been approved by the Council of Ministers, that is reactionary. It fundamentally restricts the rights and freedom of women to have control over their bodies.

The meeting was timely in that on 9 May, the British high court ruled against women from Northern Ireland being able to have a free abortion under the NHS. The 1967 Abortion Act was not extended to NI, which means that women who want an abortion will have to pay between £400-£2,000 to travel and pay privately for an abortion in England. >>Read more here<<

So the meeting was held under the slogan: Not the Church! Not the state! Women must decide their fate!

There were three speakers: Kerry Abel, Secretary of Abortion Rights, LU Women’s Caucus, Cristina Rios, My Belly is Mine and Susan Pashkoff, Left Unity Women’s Caucus.

Susan led off the discussion be addressing where we are today – January was the 41st anniversary of Roe vs Wade and Doe vs Bolton in the US, as well as in Nicaragua and El Salvador, where abortion is illegal and criminalised. She talked about how abortion rights must be addressed in the context of the general struggle for women’s liberation containing both the oppression of race and gender and class exploitation.

“The issue is not only about abortion; rather it is about our reproductive rights in general and, essentially, our control over our bodies,” she said. This is an issue that remains a fundamental part of patriarchal control over women and relates to control over property and its inheritance and quite obviously to our roles in the societies in which we live.”

She also made the important link between the UK government’s austerity programme and the attack on the availability of abortion – as the NHS faces funding cuts and privatisation, women’s access to abortion and contraception will become more limited.

You can read her whole speech >>here<<

Cristina talked about launching the campaign My Belly is Mine – she was so outraged at what was happening in Spain and viewed this as part of a wider assault on women. Weirdly predictable, is that, of all the political promises the Partido Popular made during the election campaign, this is the only pledge that they are putting into action. Spain will debate in congress in July. France feminists and the left socialists have supported the Spanish campaign.

So she set up blog and twitter campaign, and contacted the London Feminist Network and Abortion Rights campaign. They called two actions, one on 1 February that attracted about 200 people and a picket of the Spanish embassy on 8 February.

She also contacted all the university feminist groups and only Durham got back. She got the feeling that young women in the UK believe that this is not a problem and here we have abortion on demand. Yet that is not true: each woman who wants an abortion has to have the approval of two doctors, and for many it is a post code lottery as to when they can access the service. And of course this access to abortion services does not apply in Northern Ireland.

It is also important to realise that even though things are slightly better here, every year or so the Tories attempt to roll back the 1967 law. So we can’t be complacent. Everyone across Europe is worried about events in Spain because they know that if the law is approved then it will give the green light to other reactionary forces.

Cristina told us about the US evangelist Pat Robertson who has founded the European Court for Law and Justice and collected 2 million signatures to propose to withdraw all EU funding for abortion (in Europe a campaign only needs 1million signatures to propose a change). The decision will take place on 28 May.

Kerry concluded the introductions by talking about Abortion Rights and its campaign not only to defend the 1967 Abortion Act, but also to extend it: better services. Better access. She cited surveys that estimate between 75-83% of the UK population is pro-choice.

She listed three reasons to fight for extending the 1967 Act: women have the right to control their own bodies, banning abortion doesn’t stop it but pushes it underground, and it’s about class. Middle and upper class women don’t have to scramble around and scrimp and save to gather together the money to get an abortion in NI, but working class women do.

Her full speech can be read >>here<<

Kate read a solidarity statement from Izquierda Unida in Spain and proposed that the Left Unity Women’s Caucus writes policy on issues of reproductive rights to bring to the next policy conference, which will most likely take place in the autumn.

We also plan to support the My Belly is Mine campaign and join the protests that will take place around the time the Spanish congress debate on the anti-abortion draft bill in July.

Written by Joy Macready

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