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Whose Body Is It Anyway?

The end of abortion rights in the United States sent shockwaves around the world and emboldened pro-life supporters everywhere. It’s gotten to the point where now, in Britain, we are having to defend rights for women that were fought for long and hard, and that were recognised more than 50 years ago.

Only last month, the Government, with no consultation and no prior discussion, diluted its commitment to women’s abortion and sexual health rights.

After it hosted an international conference on Freedom of Religion and Beliefs in July, at which it issued a multi-nation statement on gender equality, the Government then chose to re-issue the statement online removing key references to sexual and reproductive rights.

The original statement made a commitment to repealing laws that “allow harmful practices, or restrict women’s and girls’ … sexual and reproductive health and rights, bodily autonomy”. More than 20 countries signed up to that.

But after the revised version appeared online, only two countries (to date) have signed, including Malta where abortion is illegal in all circumstances including rape and incest.

This backtracking must not be allowed to stand. Women in Britain must have control over when and if they decide to have a baby. It is our right. Some people scream about their right not to wear a face mask even when infections from Covid are running rampant and people are still dying from Covid infection. Yet a woman might be denied a say in what happens to her own body when it affects her body and her life most severely. It’s crazy!

I don’t believe abortions should be unregulated. In fact, I don't believe anyone believes in unregulated abortions. There should be time limits. The limit for most abortions in Britain is at 24 weeks, unless the mother’s life is in danger or the child has severe disabilities. While in Sweden, for example, abortions are permitted at up to 18 weeks and thereafter only in cases where there is severe medical risk.

Honestly, I prefer the Swedish model more than the British for personal reasons.

Six years ago, a neighbour of mine was 26 weeks into her pregnancy when she started bleeding and called an ambulance for help. I opened the door to the paramedics and stayed with her until she delivered her tiny baby, after which they were both immediately taken to hospital. Four months later, she came back with her little girl, Malika. The baby had survived and was supported in hospital until she could come home. A couple of months ago I went to Malika's fifth birthday party. I realise this example is unique but it shows just how far medical advances have come.

However, whether abortions are permitted at 24 weeks or 18 weeks, I still believe all women must be able to decide for themselves when it’s best for them to start a family. We are more than just baby incubators.

Also, society has to accept that it has responsibilities, too. In the first place, it is every state’s duty to look after the welfare of its citizens. We all have to recognise that too many times women are trapped in very damaging situations or critically compromised in their relationships.

Last year, almost 1.5 million domestic abuse incidents were reported to the police, about 18 per cent of all recorded crimes, and we know domestic abuse incidents are drastically under-reported. We also know that over 70 per cent of victims of domestic abuse are women, and that rape is not an uncommon weapon of choice.

In the vast majority of cases women do not opt for an abortion lightly. Many are not emotionally ready, may not have the money to bring up a child, are underaged or still in education, have little or no support from their family, or the father of the child. And, the burdens placed on the mother of an unwanted child will no doubt soon be placed on the state with pressure on unemployment figures, benefits, housing, social services, healthcare and more. This is not just a problem for women.

In the UK, abortion was made legal in the UK in 1967, coming into effect in April 1968. At a stroke it put an end to backstreet clinics and untrained charlatans who took advantage of desperate women. The quakes who frequently put women’s health, and sometimes their lives, in serious danger, were gone.

So, today, the complete package of female contraception (the contraceptive pill was introduced in Britain in 1961); condoms more comfortable and readily available; the ‘morning after’ pill that prevents the chances of pregnancy immediately after sex; and, when all else fails, as it so often can, abortions, then women in Britain can properly take control of their reproductive health.

Women’s lives and, let’s not forget, men’s lives, too, can continue without the threat of an unwanted pregnancy and all the ramifications that that entails.

It has always been unrealistic to think men and women will never have sex until the situation is right for all concerned. Throughout history, despite religious commands, the threat of being shunned by society, parental and familial control, even the iron clad chastity belts of the Middle Ages, people have always found a way to have sex. It’s only in the past 50/60 years of medical advances that we have had the wherewithal to deal with the likely consequences as safely as possible.

So, we cannot and must not lose our rights to good quality sexual health and reproductive health choices. Forcing a woman to have an unwanted child is a powerful form of abuse and extraordinary control. It’s nothing short of reproductive slavery and we cannot, must not, go back to that.

This is the personal view of Halaleh Taheri,

Founder & Executive Director, MEWSo

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