The Handmaid's Tale of Coalition Britain

Jeremy Hunt's recently-voiced and ill-founded opinion on abortion adds insult to injury. Coalition austerity policies and attacks on women's rights mean that day by day Britain is becoming no country for women.

After the British Minister for Health, Jeremy Hunt, said in a newspaper interview earlier this month that his personal view is that “12 weeks is the right point” for a limit on abortion – a drastic reduction from the 24 weeks limit set by the Human Embryo and Fertilisation Act of 1990 – conversations turned grim. Perhaps most surreal was the concern in pro-Conservative quarters that Jeremy Hunt’s comments were ill-timed, given that it was the week of the Conservative Party Conference, where Prime Minister David Cameron was due to declare his commitment to the National Health Service, the small matter of decimating cuts aside. Others noted that Hunt, the Minister of Health, was giving an opinion that had no basis in scientific evidence, and pro-choice campaigners expressed their outrage that women’s right to their reproductive health was being called into question. Cameron was put in the position of awkwardly defending Hunt’s statements whilst reassuring the public that any vote would be a “free vote” in Parliament.

The comments raise the concern that the government does not have a commitment to women’s rights and choices at heart, and that the hard-won rights of the last forty years – the basic recognition that women need and deserve to control their own fertility – could be corroded against public opinion and against medical advice. It is deeply concerning that a Minister for Health would express an opinion that goes against the position of medical professionals – for the British Medical Association has called upon MPs to vote against any attempt to reduce the 24 week to 20 weeks, stating that there is no “scientific justification” for such a reduction. 

There was also something peculiar in how Hunt spoke out in favour of a limit that is even more extreme than the stated support for the curtailment of reproductive rights from other Conservative MPs that had come earlier in the month, namely Maria Miller’s declared support for a reduction of the abortion limit from 24 weeks to 20 weeks. There is a danger of sounding conspiracy theory-ish in frustration at such attacks on hard-won and necessary rights of reproductive health, but it is difficult not to wonder – perhaps Hunt and others who have been muddying public discourse with their personal ‘preferred’ abortion limit these last weeks (“I’d like 12 weeks!” “I’d like 20!” “I’d like women to only have abortions on Tuesdays and only if they feel really guilty about it!”) hoped that the result would be that, when the proposal of 20 weeks is put on the table it won’t seem ‘so bad’ in comparison to the more extreme positions voiced by Tory politicians, or public debate will be so exhausted by the arguments involved in re-opening the abortion issue that they will acquiesce, tiredly seeing 20 weeks as a ‘compromise’.

Whether this is what Hunt intended or not, he has now put himself up alongside Maria Miller as a symbol of a new state attack on women’s bodies. ‘Orwellian’ is an easily misused phrase, but something about the news this month smelt of drab, shabby English-autumn grime mingled with unreal dystopia: imagine – your country’s ‘Minister for Health’ making statements about a woman’s right to choose on the basis of no scientific evidence; your country’s ‘Minister for Women and Equality’ voicing her approval for the curtailing of reproductive choice. Yes, it should be acknowledged that Hunt was only giving his personal opinion, but this doesn’t negate the impression that the people appointed to protect women and health seem, between them, to show little concern for women’s health. As well as ignoring the statistics that the vast majority of abortions take place in the very early stages of pregnancy, with 79% before the 10 week gestation period, the debate also ignored the more qualitative and complex issue reproductive health workers have pointed out – that the reasons for late abortions are very difficult, not to mention the fact that gaps in health service provisions are often what makes the process of seeking a termination take longer for women, something that would surely be exacerbated as cuts to health services continue to bite. Yet there were no statements from the Ministers for Health or Women on positive ways to reduce the number of abortions, such as improving access to contraception for all age groups – the Minister for Health and the Minister for Women confined themselves to their various opinions on to what extent they would like to remove women’s ability to control their own bodies. That’s what I mean by Orwellian.

The context in which Hunt’s comments come feels viscerally painful, like being assaulted when you’re already physically weakened. For these latest attacks on women’s reproductive health come at a time when British women have already been worn down, infringed upon, pushed aside, and trodden on by policy after policy. In addition to the ways in which the recession corroded women’s lives to a greater extent than previous downturns due to the rise of female-headed households and female employment over the past ten years, the Conservatives have utilised the supposed ‘neutrality’ of austerity cuts (“we’re all in it together and want to get out of the recession”) to enact its own vision of society – the cuts to SureStart and welfare provisions combine with the decimation of provisions such as domestic violence services to add insult to injury as women (and families, and parents, and children – for an attack on women’s rights always knocks a long chain of painful dominoes) continue to reel from the economic bite of the recession.

This latest possible attack on reproductive rights is perhaps the logical conclusion to the vision the government has carved on the face of British public life in the guise of ‘austerity’ measures – women have already been attacked economically, socially, and politically. After losing your job and losing much of the health, education and welfare services needed for you and your family, here comes the last instalment – lose the right to control your own fertility.

It makes one wonder, how exactly is a woman expected to be, in the Tory vision? One of the most striking examples of how the government cuts have started to play out, which emerged over the summer, are the impact of cuts to maternity provisions. With the disproportionately high level of female unemployment (due in part to the disproportionate employment of women in the public sector, first on the chopping block when the austerity measures came in), and the cuts to services which are vital for many women’s lives, it seems fair to say that many Conservatives exalt full-time motherhood as an ideal. Yet data emerged earlier this summer from health analysts SSentif to suggest that cuts are affecting maternity services, with a knock-on effect on the health of mothers and their newborn children. Between female unemployment on the one hand, gendered austerity cuts on the other, and with the possible corrosion of reproductive rights on the table, the decline in the quality of maternity services is the factor that really seals the overall picture that things are progressing into some kind of Margaret Atwood dystopia -- motherhood exalted as the ideal while motherhood itself is less safe.  How, exactly, is a woman meant to be a person in this climate, so cleverly penned in by encroachments in all areas of her life?

The same issue can be raised with the impact of the estimated £20 billion in welfare cuts by 2014 and Iain Duncan Smith’s latest Victorian-caricature proposal that the unemployed only receive benefits for no more than two children: the concern about the ‘sanctity of life’ that gets raised to curtail women’s reproductive rights does not seem to manifest much in concern for the lives of those living in Britain now.

As the American election gears up for its final week, all brash and bright and alpha, women’s bodies have been the terrain of political battles between the two main parties, with liberals characterising the Republican party, or at least sections of it, as engaged in a ‘war on women’, and telling women to “vote as if your life depends on it” this November.  But it is happening here in Britain too – in our understated, dreary way, but in a way that still stitches itself into daily life – if you have children there are fewer libraries to take them to, the precarity of temporary employment is often your only option for work, and -- as your remuneration for toughing out the recession, your increasing marginalisation from power and the unequal austerity measures -- your government will reward you with removing your right to choose. Day by day, corrosion by corrosion, Britain is becoming no country for women.

 

About the author

Heather McRobie is a journalist, writer, and co-editor of openDemocracy 50.50. She is completing a PhD on the 2011 Egyptian revolution and holds an MA focusing on Balkan studies. Her latest book Literary Freedom: a Cultural Right to Literature was published in December 2013.  Follow her on twitter @heathermcrobie