On 27th April 1968, 46 years ago, the Abortion Act became law, and women in the UK – except in Northern Ireland – were entitled to get safe, legal abortions. That’s half a lifetime ago. There can be few doctors or nurses still practicing who have first-hand memories of the bad old prolife days.
Every year for the past few years, on the Saturday closest to that date, SPUC stand in a line down Lothian Road, on the Sheraton Hotel side, and express their sorrow and regret for 46 years of health and wellbeing for women.
(The gentleman with the little girl on his shoulders, carrying the sign ABORTION KILLS CHILDREN, kept lifting his sign to block his face whenever he saw one of us taking photographs: I’ve seen BNP demonstrators do the same thing. In previous years SPUCcers have had expensive, heavy, pre-printed signs in grim black: this year they had new, expensive, pink signs and pink helium balloons. There’s a lot of money on their side of the road.)
Every year, human rights campaigners show up and stand in a line down the other side of Lothian Road, on the Usher Hall side, and express our joy and satisfaction that in 1968, a major piece of human rights legislation became law, and took a key aspect of healthcare for women out of the hands of criminals and unqualified practitioners, and into the hands of properly-qualified doctors, nurses, and the NHS.
On 18th September, Scotland votes in the independence referendum. If Yes gets the majority, what happens to a women’s right to abortion? It would be complacent to assume that nothing will happen. Women in Spain took for granted their right to access safe legal abortion – until a bill passed in February this year took it away from them.
In an alarming move, an interfaith group of churches announced that if Scotland went independent, they wanted to “stake a claim” for “the contribution of faith to Scottish society” – to have both Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church written in to any constitution for Scotland. Any Scottish constitution for an independent or devolved Scotland should obviously acknowledge everyone’s right to freedom of religion, but there is no need to include any church representatives to ensure that happens. The thought of a Scottish constitution anything like Ireland’s, which has been used for decades to deny women and LGBT people equal rights, should appall everyone with a concern for human rights.
One of the new banners on the prochoice side was Dyke March Scotland – Scotland’s first celebration of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans women in Edinburgh on 17th May. Abortion is not only an issue for sexually-active heterosexual women: all women need to have access to safe legal abortion on demand. Abortion as a human rights issue is a concern for everyone: and in general, the people who oppose this basic human right for women, also oppose human rights for LGBT people.
Another new group is These Hysterical Women – a group of Spaniards standing up for safe legal abortion access for all women worldwide.
Alex Salmond, in one of his few trips down to Westminster in 2008, cast his vote against safe legal access to abortion (and in 2007 was keen on the idea of a commission to examine abortion laws, which given his voting record, we can assume he hoped would restrict the rights of access women have gained): Alex Neil, appointed as Health Secretary by Salmond, explicitly said he thought women should have less safe legal access. Yes campaigners, in their usual dismissal of women-specific concerns, tend to handwave concerns about abortion access if Yes gets the majority: there’s a lack of voices on the Yes side saying emphatically that women in an independent Scotland should absolutely have the same or better access to safe legal abortion on demand as we do today.
I wondered, watching the SPUC contingent across the road, what was on the table display they had set out. Pictures of an artist’s impression of what purports to be an 8-week embryo: and what looks like a plastic model, many times life size, of a dismembered foetus. Because that’s not creepy at all.
After the official end of the demo, a few SPUCcers came over to talk to us. (Most, I presume, had to be bussed back to wherever they had come from.) One man in particular spent some time explaining to us how evolution was just a theory. (I got to use my line: yes, like gravity.) He did not appear to be aware that the beautiful glossy pictures supposedly depicting an 8-week embryo are very much artist’s impressions, not actual photographs.