Ahead of tonight’s screening of “Kind to Women – how the 1967 Abortion Act changed our lives”, Jillian Merchant (Vice Chair, Abortion Rights Scotland) shares her thoughts on the difference the Act has made to women’s lives and the continuing fight for abortion rights.
The passing of the 1967 Abortion Act was a pivotal moment for women’s health and women’s lives in Scotland. The culmination of decades of campaigning, it finally ended the horror of deaths from self-induced and backstreet abortions. It precipitated the public funding of contraception for all and meant that, finally, women were able to choose when and whether to have children.
In this moving documentary, women who survived illegal abortion, the nurses who picked up the pieces when things went wrong, campaigning doctors and abortion rights advocates share vivid memories of the time and bring to life the story of this ground-breaking legislation and of a historic turning point for women’s rights.
The timing is apt. As the film begins Scotland’s Court of Session will just, hours before, have concluded a two day hearing where the anti choice lobby group, the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) are asking the Court to strike down the Scottish Government’s decision to designate a woman’s home as a place where the second abortion pill can be taken. (More on that here).
And in less than a fortnight Ireland will go to the polls in a referendum on the 8th amendment. It is the 8th amendment which gives both the unborn foetuses and pregnant women an equal right to life. This is an abortion ban, in all but name. It is one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the western world. If the referendum is won the law will provide for medical abortion on request for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. With the drugs being prescribed by the woman’s GP.
For many the turning point which precipitated the referendum was the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012. Savita died because she was refused an abortion. Had Savita been permitted access to an abortion, as she requested, her life would have been saved.
The 25th May is a reckoning in Ireland’s history. It is a test of whether the ground swell of progressive social conscience which was on show during the equal marriage referendum, only two years ago, can be repeated. However, abortion rights campaigners are not naïve. It is not as simple as believing that the equal marriage vote means that attitudes have changed to abortion. For some abortion, and the sanctity of life, is at the very core of their religious and moral being. In those terms it is a far more radical step than the equalisation of marriage.
As is always the case the anti choice campaigners are well funded. Recent media reports by Open Democracy and the Guardian have revealed what many of us on the pro choice side have long suspected – concerning links to American Pro Life Groups and those who provided support to Donald Trump’s 2016 Campaign where he sought to seek division between voters in order to ascend to the US Presidency.
All of this shows that a woman’s body and her autonomy to make decisions over her own body are, regrettably, still a matter of public debate. This has to end.
The law on abortion in Scotland has changed little, if at all, since it was introduced 50 years ago. Abortion is still a crime. There is still the requirement for the signature of two doctors – unlike any other healthcare procedure. There has been no attempt to update the legislation to take account of changes in modern medicine or the realities of women’s lives.
The Scottish Government’s decision on Abortion Pills was the first of it’s kind within the UK. Although seen as politically courageous, there is widespread international medical consensus that the abortion pill is safe and clinically appropriate to take at home. Indeed many countries including the United States, France and Sweden already permit it.
Ironically enough, the exact same pill is permitted to be taken at home in Scotland at present. But only after a woman has miscarried.
This demonstrates that the drugs are entirely safe. There is no reason as to why it cannot be taken at home. There is only judgment from those who do not, and will never, find themselves in the situation many women do.
The truth is that the anti choice lobby want to restrict a woman’s right to choose; to fight progress at every stage and to drive abortion back to backstreets, endangering the lives of women in the process.
Let’s ensure that they fail.
Let’s unite as women and progressives to defend the 1967 Act but also campaign for changes to bring this outdated and draconian piece of legislation into the 21st century.
There are still tickets available for the event here.