In September, a woman was jailed for terminating her pregnancy in its final stage. Sarah Catt took a drug that she purchased on the Internet to cause an abortion in 2009, and now faces eight years in prison for it.
To give her sentence some perspective, it is two years longer than Joseph Moran’s, who raped a 23-year-old woman in Nottingham last December, and four years longer than Stephen Woodward’s, who admitted stabbing his wife to death on Christmas Day.
In his sentencing speech, Justice Jeremy Cooke said that Catt had made a “deliberate and calculated decision” to end her pregnancy. He added that Catt had “robbed” the baby of the life it was about to have and said the seriousness of the crime “lay between manslaughter and murder”. He added that: “There is no mitigation available by reference to the Abortion Act, whatever view one takes of its provisions which are, wrongly, liberally construed in practice so as to make abortion available essentially on demand prior to 24 weeks with the approval of registered medical practitioners.”
Cooke’s condescending and moralising tone should be seen alongside his membership of the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship (LCF), which has campaigned for more conservative abortion laws. But the harsh sentence meted out to Catt – and indeed the fact that she was on trial at all – demonstrates that the UK’s 1967 Abortion Act does not give women the right to control their own fertility. Catt had tried to obtain a legal abortion at a clinic at 30 weeks, but had been told she was too far along. The law only allows a woman to abort within a time limit of 24 weeks in most cases.
Although a sight better than in many countries, such as Ireland, Egypt and Argentina, where abortion is illegal except when the woman’s life is in danger, UK law clearly does not grant abortion on demand. Women in the UK have access to legal abortion only when two doctors agree that continuing the pregnancy would be a risk to the physical or mental health of the woman.
Fight for the right to choose
Every year the limited gains of the Abortion Act are threatened with being rolled back. Justice Cooke has given anti-abortion campaigners the green light to charge forward. LIFE, the anti-abortion charity, said that his verdict “reflects the gravity of the offence committed and demands a rethink of the law that allows abortion up to birth”. The verdict will also be a signal to those in the Tory party, like Nadine Dorries, who are trying to change public opinion by stealth. Last year Dorries attempted to strip abortion providers of their role in counselling women, while earlier this year she put forward a bill that would have forced schools to promote “abstinence”.
Both moves were roundly defeated.
But new health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s recent announcement that he supports halving the legal time limit for abortion to 12 weeks is a sign that we can expect more attacks on women’s right to choose from this government. The effect of denying women control over their fertility is that they cannot participate equally with men in production, social and political life.
The burden of repeated pregnancy and many children, of uncertainty about whether or when another child will be added to the family, the restriction of sexual pleasure as a result of fear of pregnancy – all of these undermine women’s ability to participate fully in social life, and achieve independence and control over their individual lives. The provision of free contraception and abortion on demand for all women is therefore an essential part of women’s liberation. The choice as to when and whether to have a child gives working class women the ability to decide on their personal role in life and their relation to the world of work.
The labour movement and socialists must fight for state funding to allow women access to free contraception and abortion on demand, without a time limit.
At the same time that the state is attacking women’s right to control their bodies, it is also planning to close eight affordable and high quality workplace nurseries for HM Revenue & Customs staff and local families. Nurseries in East Kilbride, Leeds, Salford, Blackburn, Leicester, Cardiff, Wolverhampton and Nottingham are to close in November. But nursery workers and families are fighting against the closures. Over 2,000 people have signed an online petition, and parents have held demonstrations and have set up a Facebook campaign page called “Save HMRC’s Nurseries”.
Spiralling costs of childcare are forcing many women out of a job and plunging working class families further into poverty. With around one in eight women in the UK having left a job and one in five turning down a job offer over childcare costs, it’s clear that the consequence of vicious cuts is forcing women out of the workplace and into the home. We demand that free 24-hour childcare should be provided and funded by taxing the rich.