Workers Hammer No. 235

Summer 2016


For free abortion on demand!

Women prosecuted over abortion pill

In April a 21-year-old Northern Ireland woman who had had an abortion when she was 19 was slammed with a three-month jail sentence, suspended for one year. With abortion outlawed in Northern Ireland, she could not afford the trip to Britain for an abortion. So she bought tablets over the internet and ended the pregnancy. When her housemates despicably reported her to the police, what should have been a safe, private undertaking of no concern to anyone else became a traumatic ordeal paraded in public view. Another Northern Ireland woman who is accused of buying abortion pills online for her teenage daughter faces prosecution imminently.

The abortion pills mifepristone and misoprostol taken in combination will terminate a pregnancy by inducing a miscarriage. Safe and effective, these drugs are included on the “essential medicines” list by the World Health Organization. They should be easily available to any woman wanting an abortion. Yet while 21st century science has produced this simple, non-surgical method to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, and the internet has made it widely available, women risk being prosecuted and imprisoned for it under Victorian legislation.

According to recent figures, just over half of all terminations in England and Wales are carried out using a pill, often under the supervision of healthcare professionals. Yet the risk of women breaking the law is now greater than at any point since the 1967 Abortion Act was passed. Under that Act, women must get the approval of two doctors to terminate a pregnancy. As a statement titled “The campaign to decriminalise abortion across the UK” points out: “No other routine medical procedure demands legal authorisation by doctors in addition to the normal requirements of obtaining informed consent” (We Trust Women, 2016).

Furthermore, abortion after 24 weeks of pregnancy is illegal unless the woman’s life is in danger, or in some cases of foetal abnormality. Last December, a young County Durham woman, Natalie Towers, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for inducing her own abortion 32-34 weeks into her pregnancy. Currently, less than 0.1 per cent of all abortions take place after 24 weeks gestation. But anti-abortion bigots have whipped up a reactionary crusade to turn back abortion rights for all women, including by brandishing ultrasound images of foetuses supposedly smiling, waving and even walking, to further restrict the time limit on legal abortion. We defend a woman’s right to have an abortion at any stage. We reject the notion pushed by bible-thumpers and other anti-women reactionaries that a foetus is a person, with a “soul”. We say: Natalie Towers committed no crime and should be freed immediately! For free abortion on demand!

Recently Cathy Warwick, the head of the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), faced a furore by Christian “pro-lifers”, including a minority within the RCM, when the organisation came out for decriminalising abortion. Together with the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the largest abortion provider in Britain, the RCM is calling for the removal of the 24-week limit as well as scrapping the requirement for doctors’ permission. As Warwick put it, “let’s give this to women to decide and let’s put it in the general field of healthcare” (, 21 May).

The fact that abortion pills are available on the internet is a lifeline for women not only in Northern Ireland, where the 1967 Act does not apply, but also in the South, where the clericalist state enforces a near total ban on abortion. Outraged protest erupted in 2012 in Dublin and elsewhere when Savita Halappanavar died in hospital because staff declaring “this is a Catholic country” refused to carry out an abortion that would have saved her life. According to research carried out by the Detail, an investigative news website based in Belfast, some 25,000 women from Ireland, North and South, travelled to England or Wales for an abortion from 2010 to 2014. But for the many women too poor, young or vulnerable to make the trip, buying the abortion pill online would rescue them from the hell of an unwanted pregnancy. The Abortion Support Network (ASN) is a charity that helps women from Ireland, North and South, as well as from the Isle of Man, to access terminations, either by travelling to Britain or by obtaining pills via the internet. “Are we giving them information about something that’s illegal? Absolutely. But do we feel it’s wrong? Absolutely not. I totally hold the law in contempt”, said Mara Clarke, director of ASN. Abortion pills, Clarke asserted, are “a lot safer than overdosing on all the medicine in your bathroom cabinet, or trying to figure out how to crash a car to cause a miscarriage but not kill you, or taking three packs of birth control with gin” (, 12 June 2015).

In late May, three Derry women in their 60s and 70s handed themselves in at a police station as a protest after seeing women prosecuted for using abortion pills in Northern Ireland. “It is unforgivable how women are being treated”, said Diana King. The women are challenging the law by demanding to be prosecuted for procuring abortion pills for women who need them but are afraid to have them delivered to their homes.

Women on Web, a Dutch charity which dispenses the abortion pill by post to women in places where the law forbids it, reportedly receives 10,000 emails a month from women seeking an abortion. But even where the pill is legally available, it isn’t always accessible. As Women on Web director Rebecca Gomperts says of some of the appeals for help that come from Britain: “If you’re a 16-year-old with religious parents and you can’t leave the house without a chaperone, you can’t go to a clinic” (, 12 June 2015). Courageous organisations such as Women on Web are saving the lives of women that are put at risk by religion, bourgeois morality and the state.

The right to abortion, and for a woman to decide if and when to have a child, is a simple democratic right, denied in much of the world. We Marxists fight for abortion to be legal and free on demand everywhere, as part of our struggle for free, quality healthcare for all. But this right is also integral to the fight for women’s equality and therein lies the explosiveness of the question.

For women to have control over their own reproduction is seen as a threat to the institution of the family, which is fundamental to maintaining the system of capitalist exploitation. Together with organised religion, the family reinforces authority and social conservatism. The institution of the family arose with the advent of private property as a mechanism for transmitting wealth to “legitimate” offspring through inheritance. Guaranteeing the paternity of the heir required that the woman be monogamous. The oppression of women is rooted in this social subordination, which is also expressed in the foisting of the burden of child-rearing and housework onto women in individual family units.

Anti-woman bigotry cannot be eradicated under this system that requires the oppression and subjugation of women for its very functioning. Marxists therefore call for women’s liberation through socialist revolution!