Charter for Choice

Lisa Hallgarten, Voice for Choice: Why we need to continue the fight for abortion rights.

Lisa is Chair of Voice for Choice and works tirelessly to ensure that women have choice on abortion.

Last month I was in Dublin and I dropped in on an Abortion Rights Campaign meeting to bring greetings and an expression of solidarity from Voice for Choice in the UK. The room was buzzing – with organisers running around trying to locate more chairs as an unprecedented and unexpected number of people piled into the room. Change is coming in Ireland and the desire for and expectation of progress was palpable. Amnesty International had just launched its My Body My Rights report on Ireland highlighting the ways in which Irish abortion law punishes women and contravenes their human rights. Just a few days earlier the referendum on equal marriage had given a resounding YES to equal rights, and a resounding ‘whatever’ to the conservative forces resisting progress. That referendum campaign seemed to beg the question ‘what about the other referendum we want: the one to repeal the 8th Amendment?’

I told the meeting how confident I am that they will win their struggle for women’s reproductive rights in Ireland, but even when they win, they should expect to be in it for the long haul.

Although the UK Abortion Act is widely believed to be one of the most important and progressive pieces of public health legislation in this country, since it was passed in 1967 there have been countless attempts to amend it in Parliament and slur it in the media. I first got involved in campaigning for abortion rights in 1987 when the then Liberal MP David Alton was attempting to reduce the abortion time limit to 18 weeks. Since then I have participated in campaigns against several more time limit attacks, attempts to obstruct the process of seeking abortion, and a recent attempt to undermine some of the key principles of the Act by anti-abortion MPs. Even though most people in the UK (yes including Northern Ireland) think that abortion should be safe, legal and available, and even though we will be celebrating its 50th birthday in 1967, the war of attrition against the Abortion Act continues unabated.

Campaigning against the Alton Bill, Birmingham 1987

Alongside parliamentary work and supporting colleagues in Northern Ireland campaigning for legal abortion there, we have to be staunch and outspoken advocates of all the women who choose abortion for a multitude of ordinary, sometimes extraordinary and always very personal reasons. We have to continue to fight the stigma surrounding abortion and continue combating the everyday misinformation that attaches itself to the topic. We have to support and celebrate our abortion providers, and ensure there’s a new generation of them coming through. We have to make sure our young people are getting the information they need as part of comprehensive and universal sex and relationships education to prevent unwanted pregnancies and to know that parenting and abortion are both valid options if they can’t.

The new Charter for Choice campaign looks forward to a future in which every aspect of reproductive health care is shaped around and respects people’s individual needs and choices; and one in which unintended pregnancy and abortion are not privileged as the controversial issues, but are seen as just another of the many sometimes straightforward and sometimes difficult choices ordinary woman might be confronted with across their whole reproductive lifespans.

This future isn’t going to fall into our laps though. There will be a small, but vocal minority who will resist progress and will fight us every step of the way. So, as the late great Curtis Mayfield once sang, we better ‘keep on keeping on’. I will if you will.