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Abortion: a lifetime’s campaigning

Watch lifelong humanist campaigner Diane Munday describe her motivations for liberalising abortion laws
I was leading a very happy married life with three young children, when, in the early 1960s I had a fourth pregnancy. I was surprised by my depth of my feeling that this was something I could not, would not, continue with. I bought an abortion in Harley Street, and when I was coming around from the anaesthetic I remembered a young woman, in a very similar situation to the one I was then in, who I’d known some years before - married, three young children, who had died from a backstreet abortion, and I realised that the fact I had a cheque book to wave in Harley Street had bought a wife for my husband, a mother for my three young children, whilst the other young woman without money had lost her life, left three children without a mother and a widower grieving for her.
And I vowed, probably as a result of the anaesthetic, that I would spend the rest of my life, if needs be, campaigning, trying to change that situation, so that all women could have what I saw then as the luxury, the privilege, of making a choice about whether or not I had a child. That privilege should be available to all women as of a right.
No woman wants an abortion. To need an abortion is actually not a negation of the maternal instinct, as the anti-abortion lobby would tell you, but a continuation of it. The woman who is pregnant wants to know that the child she will bear will have a good life, that she will be able to care for it. And by a good life I don’t mean material goods. I mean that it can have love, support, not be seen as a nuisance, not wreck the mother’s life and ambitions.
That instinctive drive to abortion when the time is not right to bring another human being into the world I am convinced is an extension of a mother’s concern to be able to bring up her offspring and care for them properly.
No woman is pro-abortion, no woman goes and has sex thinking ‘Oh well, I won’t use a contraceptive because I can always go and get an abortion’. It isn’t nice. It isn’t easy, it isn’t desirable, and I’ve become very, very cross when I’ve been called ‘pro-abortion’. But the words are important and one sees how very good the anti-abortion lobby are because early on they found that being anti-abortion got them nowhere and they started calling themselves ‘pro-life’. And that is why I get cross. I am pro-life. I am pro the quality of life.
Not fitted carpets and central heating, but as I said earlier, pro the capacity for a child to be loved, nurtured, treated as an individual, not just as something that had to be born because it was decreed it should.
I sometimes think history, when the population explosion really impacts on the whole of humankind, people will look back in horror and incredulity at us today forcing women to have children they don’t want, can’t look after, because of something that was written on a bit of paper or decreed thousands of years ago.
If I had a pound for every time a woman has said to me ‘Thank you for what you did, I’ve never had an abortion and I hope I never need one, but I have felt safe to continue with my career, with my education, with planning my future, knowing that I would be able to fulfill that plan and not have my whole life turned upside down, my ambition scuppered by an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy.’ It has given women freedom and that I really feel quite proud of.

Diane Munday was a key member of the Abortion Law Reform Association when the Abortion Law was changed in Britain in 1968. She has continued to campaign to liberalise abortion laws all her life. She is a Patron of Humanists UK.

Under the 1861 Offenses Against the Person Act (OAPA), it is a crime for a pregnant women, and anyone who assists her, to seek a termination of that pregnancy. This law is one of the most restrictive in Europe, and the criminal sanctions imposed are among the harshest in the world, with the maximum sentence being life imprisonment.

In 1967, The Abortion Act was passed as a private members’ bill in Parliament. This did not repeal the OAPA, but created some exceptional grounds under which abortions could legally take place, and required two doctors to give approval for the procedure to go ahead. Therefore abortion is the only medical procedure governed by criminal law rather than medical regulation. The Abortion Act has never applied in Northern Ireland, which remains governed solely by the OAPA, and where abortion remains only legally accessible if the women’s life is in immediate danger. In 2017, over 900 women from Northern Ireland were known to have travelled to England to seek access to abortion services. (In the next step we will hear more about humanist campaigning on abortion in Northern Ireland.)

Access to safe and legal abortion is considered by international law to be a human right. Everyone has the right to health and the right to be free from violence, discrimination, torture and cruel and degrading treatment. Denying women access to abortion or forcing them to continue a pregnancy against their wishes is considered to be a violation of these rights. Moreover, maintaining laws that only criminalise women, such as criminal sanctions against abortion, is gender-based discrimination which is prohibited under the United Nations Convention on the Eradication of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Therefore, there is a strongly held belief that OAPA is out of date and the abortion procedure should be removed from criminal law, known as decriminalisation, in line with the UK’s international obligations. Other countries, such as Canada in 1988, repealed such legal restrictions.

Question: How much does the debate on abortion centre on the rights of the embryo or foetus rather than on the rights of the woman?

This article is from the free online

Humanist Lives, with Alice Roberts

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FutureLearn - Learning For Life

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