Where Have All the Feminists Gone? across a Whole Range of Issues, Including Even Abortion and Rape, Women's Rights Are Being Challenged or Eroded in Ways Not Seen for Decades. and No One Seems Ready to Fight Back

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Predictably, the 30th anniversary of the Sex Discrimination Act brought with it some self-congratulation and some sober self-examination. Sisters may celebrate their increased presence in the workplace, and an altered domestic dynamic. Indeed, though there are changes yet to be wrought--correcting discrepancies in pensions, part-time salaries and so on--you might even think: "This battle has been won. Now we just need a few accountants to sort out the boring bits."

This is insane. Pensions and pay gaps aren't even the half of it. There are battles re-emerging today that feminists of 30 years ago would have fire-breathed out of existence, and we've forgotten how to fight them.

In October last year there was a public meeting at the House of Lords, organised by a group called Abortion Rights. I had been expecting an informal and sparsely attended discussion about the media presentation of abortion. Throughout 2005, indeed for the whole of the past century, there have been surprising media swerves in a pro-life direction. The right-wing press--let's call it, for argument's sake, the Daily Mail-will run a fetishising picture of the marvel that is a growing foetus, and beside it a spread about "three women who will never recover from their abortion trauma," or a "searing"/"moving" interview with someone whose mother wanted to abort them for having Down's syndrome but for some reason didn't. The left-wing press, meanwhile, is almost mute, I suspect because it feels no need to defend abortion rights and because having them is not something easily celebrated in print. This leaves a rhetorical vacuum.

That's what I thought this discussion would be about: I thought a small group of people would get together, laugh at the Daily Mail, and go home again. I was not expecting a large public meeting focused not on the media, but on the very nature of abortion rights and the spectre of their revocation. I simply didn't realise how far to the right this debate had moved.

In May 2005 Laurence Robertson, Conservative MP for Tewkesbury, who will probably be known to you only as The One Tory Who Never At Any Point Wanted To Be Leader, won the private members' ballot. He used his moment in the spotlight to propose a blanket ban on abortion. This rocked nobody's world--some people jeered at him. The bill gets its second reading in March, at which point, I predict, people will jeer at him again. Whatever his long game is, I don't think it's his career.

Before the bill's first reading the following September, however, Evan Harris, science spokesman and, suddenly, potential leadership candidate for the Liberal Democrats, called for a committee on foetal viability, with a mind to bringing the abortion time limit down from its current 24 weeks. The time-limit debate is coming from two directions--Harris's we could broadly call the medical one, which serenely argues for abortion law merely to keep pace with medical advances. It's a bit of a dodge, given that no significant changes in foetal viability have come about since the last debate about the time limit in 1990, which led to it being reduced from 28 weeks to 24. But nevertheless, it's fairly measured.

The other direction is that of the Tory MP Liam Fox, who famously addressed this issue with the rather undergraduate rhetorical flourish that he didn't come into politics to make it easier for people to kill their babies. He wanted to bring the time limit down to 12 weeks, which meant, in effect, that this had nothing at all to do with viability: it was to do with making it so logistically difficult to get an abortion that it might as well be illegal.


Against a backdrop of people like Robertson, time-limit arguments get away with looking much saner than they are. In fact, they are a smokescreen; anyone with a serious interest in hastening the terminations of unwanted foetuses would be campaigning to make it easier for women to have an abortion before 12 weeks (currently, many health authorities don't offer abortions before three months) and to make it possible for nurses to perform certain types of abortion. …