What does the election mean for reproductive rights?

Is there a straightforward answer to this? Not really. There’s certainly no consensus in the EFC office about how anyone should vote, because the future of reproductive rights in this country (obviously only one of the many things we care about) is not just about who’s in power.

Votes on abortion are always free votes. It’s considered to be an issue of personal conscience. Therefore no party will tell its individual MPs what to think or how to vote. There are pro-choice MPs on both sides of the house and anti-choice MPs likewise. Then there’s the fact that at least 70 pro-choice MPs have stood down in this election and more may lose their seats. Nobody knows the position of the hundreds of new MPs set to fill the Commons, but it’s likely that at least a handful of these may join the small group of anti-choice MPs who take perennial pot shots at the current Abortion Act in the hope of denting it (but without any real hope of destroying it). We don’t know what money will be available to maintain sexual health services. We don’t know what political will will exist to initiate new work around teenage pregnancy, to build on the successes or address the shortfalls of the 10 year teenage pregnancy strategy that has just ended.

What we do know is that in the run up to the General Election some leading politicians on both sides of the house have felt compelled to highlight their less than radical credentials. In Cameron’s first election interview he announced his intention to vote for a reduction in the Abortion time limit as he did in 2008. Just in the last few weeks before the election was called we’ve had the watering down (a Labour own goal?) and ultimate sabotage (thanks, Tories) of legislation to implement statutory sex and relationships education; and a senior politician expressing support for those bed and breakfast owners who want to turn away gay couples . ‘Family values’ was a phrase beloved of Victorian patriarchs and Margaret Thatcher. It still, with all its implied homophobia and misogyny, has the power to send a chill down my spine. Yet it remains the default reach-for phrase for politicians who don’t have better answers to the social ills of today.

Politicians sometimes forget that there is widespread support for many progressive policies across different UK communities – after all, it was a Rabbi on the Today programme who berated the Government for denying young people their fundamental right to sex education by writing a parental opt out into the legislation. Religion need not and does not always obstruct progress. But somehow politicians tend not to consult with Buddhists, or Jains, nor those from the liberal end of the monotheistic religions, but instead pander to those self-appointed moral leaders who are more exercised by women’s sexuality than they are by child poverty, climate catastrophe or natural disaster (soon they’ll be listening sympathetically to the Iranian cleric who says that women’s immodesty causes earthquakes). More than party politics, the tendency of politicians to respond so readily to our most reactionary spokesmen represents a real threat to women’s reproductive rights in the next Parliament.

What can you do?

  • Attend local election hustings and find out how your Parliamentary candidate plans to vote next time abortion is up for debate
  • Scrutinise the party manifestos for any commitments on abortion, on maintaining funding for and prioritising teenage pregnancy, sexual health, sex and relationships education and on supporting equalities legislation.
  • Sign this petition to ensure that our new Prime Minister stands up for women and for equalities legislation and speaks out against the Pope’s anti-women agenda when he makes his state visit to the UK in September.
  • Find out more about Catholics who support a women’s right to choose

Lisa Hallgarten is Director of Education For Choice