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Abortion, rights, and representation

Attempts to erode women's reproductive rights have been seen this week in England and at Holyrood; here Engender's Policy Manager, Jill Wood, sets out why we must challenge misinformation to defend women's rights.

The vast majority of people in Scotland believe in a women’s right to choose. But periodically we are reminded of the mindset of the small majority waging anti-choice campaigns.

Last week we were in for a double dose. In London, Stella Creasy MP faced appalling harassment by an American anti-choice group. Renowned for her ground-breaking work on women’s reproductive health, Creasy was targeted in her constituency, where an image of what was claimed to be a fetus aborted at 24 weeks was displayed on a billboard next to a photograph of her face. Underneath were the words 'Stop Stella'.

An outpouring of condemnation across the political spectrum led to an apology from the ad agency involved, although not before locals had taken matters into their own hands and whitewashed the poster. It’s heartening to see this wave of support and solidarity with Creasey, however countless women, men and children were subjected to the image before it was painted over. Given that abortion, miscarriage, and other issues around pregnancy and fertility are extremely common, it’s highly probable that many of them found it distressing. Using an image of a supposed fetus at 24 weeks gestation to represent abortion – the takeaway message from this poster for local people – is also extremely misleading for women and others affected by the need for abortion. 80% of abortions in England and Wales take place before 10 weeks.

Fetuses do not have rights.  Women’s rights to bodily autonomy and reproductive health, including access to abortion, however, are firmly established both legally and socially in Scotland.

Meanwhile, closer to home, abortion was raised in the Scottish Parliament. Earlier in the week, New South Wales became the last state in Australia to decriminalise abortion, overturning a 119 year old law, much like the one that operates to restrict abortion across the UK. Monica Lennon MSP lodged a motion in parliament acknowledging this achievement and calling for the Scottish Government to follow suit, decriminalise abortion and improve access to reproductive rights.

In response, John Mason MSP, a man who is outspoken with his anti-choice views, lodged his own motion. It asked parliamentarians to see the devolution of abortion to the Scottish Parliament as “an opportunity to improve the lives of unborn babies” (!), and to recognise that “both the woman and the baby have the fundamental right to bodily autonomy, health and proper medical care.”                                                                              

Unfortunately this language is inaccurate, inflammatory and misleading. In legal terms, unborn babies do not exist; in utero a fetus is conceived, becoming an infant or person after a live birth. This may sound pedantic, but legal definitions are brought into play as soon as human rights are invoked. John Mason is asking the Scottish Parliament to recognise that both women and fetuses have “the fundamental right to bodily autonomy and health.” This is simply not the case under either international or domestic human rights law in the UK. Fetuses do not have rights. Women’s rights to bodily autonomy and reproductive health, including access to abortion, however, are firmly established both legally and socially in Scotland.  

Setting aside the question of rights, the idea that restricting abortion law would “improve the lives of unborn babies” is frankly nonsensical. However, use of emotive language of this kind can negatively impact the thousands of women who need access to abortion each year in Scotland, past, present and future.

Mason’s approach may be more subtle than the graphic image women, men and children were confronted with in East London. However, it is part of the same spectrum of misleading information that seeks to erode women’s reproductive rights, and must be challenged. Monica Lennon’s motion does just that, and you can encourage your MSPs to support it by writing to them via WritetoThem and asking them to support motion SM5-19128 (Abortion Decriminalised by New South Wales Parliament).

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