This next piece in the ABC of Feminism series is by Haringey Green Sarah Cope, pictured here angry and shouting and at a recent NHS demonstration. Here Sarah looks at one key feminist battle ground - women's bodies.
If anyone, when asked whether or not they consider themselves to be a feminist or not, replies that they don’t think so as there really isn’t a ‘need’ for feminism anymore, I’d ask them to look at the issues around women and their bodies.
There are a myriad of issues, including the pressure on women to conform to certain standards when it comes to appearance, the over-medicalization of birth, attacks on abortion rights, the criminalisation of sex work, the condemnation of sexually active women, the low conviction rate for rape…the list is depressingly endless, and that, in part, is why I for one am a feminist.
I’m going to focus on just one of the issues here. Access to safe abortion is something we have had in this country since 1967, although the laws around access could be improved – for example, the need to obtain two doctors’ signatures is archaic and restrictive, and should be removed.
However, we are fortunate to have what women in other countries have to break the law to obtain. Indeed, it’s been reported that women in countries where abortion is illegal are just as likely to have an abortion, as there will be no shortage of people wanting to cash in on women’s desperation. However, they have to risk their lives and may face either death or imprisonment for having the temerity to attempt to take control of their own bodies.
I am seriously concerned that abortion rights will be under attack again soon, with Tory MP Nadine Dorries, who previously tried to get the time limit on abortion lowered from 24 weeks to 20 weeks, on the anti-abortion warpath again. In October, Dorries wrote on her blog:
‘If girls and women were offered counselling and information regarding other options such as, wait for it, yes, adoption. As strange as it may seem, some find that an easier option than having to deal with the consequences of a medical procedure which, somewhere in their deepest thoughts, they regard as the ending of a life.’If any argument makes me angry, it’s this one. The idea being that going through a pregnancy and childbirth, the biggest physical and emotional thing a lot of women will ever experience, is no big deal. So let’s see, that might well involve puking every day for months, intense back and pelvic pain, extreme tiredness, and your body changing beyond recognition. Oh yes, and possibly life-threatening conditions such as eclampsia. And then there’s childbirth, which as you might have heard is a bit on the painful side (made more so by the NHS being far from up to scratch when it comes to maternity services). But that’s okay, you can just hand the baby over (no breastfeeding, I guess…) and forget about it. NOT GOING TO HAPPEN.
And that’s without even mentioning the effect being adopted will have on the child as it grows up. I’m sure that adoption is handled much more sensitively these days, but it’s never going to be entirely trauma-free.
I wouldn’t rely on the Lib Dems to be a moderating voice when it comes to abortion rights, either. My own MP, Lynne Featherstone – now the Equalities Minister – wrote to me a couple of years ago about abortion rights, in response to a letter I had written to her in which I expressed my concerns about the possible lowering of the time limit for abortion. Featherstone wrote that we must listen to the latest medical advice on the issue and that she wouldn’t like to see women using abortion as a form of birth control.
Wow – a woman would really have to hate herself to use a D&C as a form of birth control. “No, don’t bother using a condom – I’ll just have an abortion, like last month! I just love having my cervix dilated and my womb scraped and vacuumed!” Yes, I can just hear that conversation in bedrooms across the country. Sexy talk.
Whenever I think of the issue of abortion rights, I think back to when I was in Toronto, researching for my MA dissertation. I was in the Thomas Fisher library, looking through a box of letters from Margaret Atwood to fellow writer Gwendolyn MacEwen. One of the letters was written in a much shakier hand than usual, and reading the content it transpired that Atwood was heavily pregnant with her daughter, Jess.
She wrote of how it was affecting her and signed off by saying that there was a word in the English language for being made to have sex against your will, but there was no word for being pregnant against your will. She said that there should be, because having been pregnant, she couldn’t begin to imagine how traumatic that would be.
There is no reason why any woman should have to experience this trauma. The brilliant resurgence in feminism that we’ve seen over the last couple of years means that the moment access to safe abortion is threatened, we will be ready to fight hard to protect it. It’s just a pity that we still have to defend something that is so fundamental to our equality.