I heard you have an SWP problem

The Socialist Workers' Party newpaper in flames. Headline reads "There's no recovery for us." Picture from http://sussexasn.tumblr.com/post/69499029324/swp-off-campus
The Socialist Workers’ Party newpaper in flames. Headline reads “There’s no recovery for us.” Picture from http://sussexasn.tumblr.com/post/69499029324/swp-off-campus

Update: The same day that I wrote this, Comrade X (one of the sexual assault survivors) resigned from the SWP and wrote about it here. It sheds more light on the horrendous activities of the SWP.

The take-home message of the recent anti-privatisation protests at Sussex and the #copsoffcampus demos in London has been “solidarity is a weapon, not a word.” “Solidarity” is  an action, not an empty utterance. It means you stand with me, even when it is easier not to. It means those who stand against us will have to put up a fight. It means you see my anger and don’t turn away, but listen and learn.

Some context

The Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) have in recent months been revealed to be a pit of misogyny, rape cover-ups and apologism. You can find a summary of events here (content note: sexual violence, victim-blaming) and a testimony from one of the survivors here (content note applies here too).

It’s important to note that the survivor’s express wishes are that we no longer organise with the SWP, a request that decent people should respect. Rape and the silencing of rape survivors has been a central concern of the feminist movements for decades; we live in a society which condemns rape in theory, but in practice blames the victim, makes it traumatic to report assault, denies rape’s position as a form of gender-based violence and, as we’ve seen in the SWP’s case, has more concerns about the alleged rapist than the victim.

This must also be put in context of misogyny and sexism within the Left;  the second-wave of feminism started in the 196os partly because women were sick of being involved in lefty organising and being treated like second-class citizens. Unfortunately, this legacy of ignoring feminist issues has continued in many activists circles (I and some other members of the Brighton Feminist Collective ran a workshop only this year on sexism on the Left; you should have heard some of the women’s stories).

Creeps off campus

Sign seen at a Cops Off Campus demo in London. Reads "To the SWP: We're getting real tired of your sh*t. From #creepingfeminism2013". Taken from here.
Sign seen at a Cops Off Campus demo in London. Reads “To the SWP: We’re getting real tired of your sh*t. From #creepingfeminism2013”. Taken from here.

The upshot of the revelations about the SWP has created some division. Members have left in droves, and many have vowed never to orgnaise with the SWP again. Others have decided to stay in the party, and try to change the culture from the inside. Some have decided they don’t give a shit about it and are happily defending their rape apologist mates.

And so we return to events on Sussex campus. At the most recent protests against privatisation (and against the suspension of 5 students involved in the campaign), the SWP presence was very visible. The group’s modus operandi has always been to arrive at any lefty protest with hundreds of SWP-stamped placards, their ubiquitous newspapers and usually a stall; you’ll see their signs in photographs of any protest from the student marches of 2010 to Slutwalks in cities across the UK.

This used to be merely annoying; now, it is utterly sickening. The presence of SWP members is one thing – you can’t tell who’s a swuppie just by looking at them. I have my opinions about people who have stayed in the party, but realise some are genuinely trying to change the culture from within. However, the visible presence of the signs and stalls, the merchandise being hawked around and literally shoved in your face is un-fucking-acceptable. If you’re still an SWP member, you answer to your conscience, but at least have the decency to be slightly embarrassed and not proudly display your allegiance to rape apologists. 1 in 5 women are raped in their lifetimes, and 1 in 12 men. Rape survivors are at these protests, and they deserve to feel safe, believed and able to take part in the campaign.

Arriving at the most recent protest, I felt punched in the stomach when I saw the SWP stall outside the library. My heart was beating double-time, I felt sick, I could barely concentrate on the speeches. I felt like crying, because I knew I couldn’t stand there without confronting someone, and I felt scared. Then, there was an almighty crash from behind me; someone had knocked the SWP stall over, ripped up their placards, and splashed their papers with water. The people who were brave enough to do this have tweeted and blogged about it; my contribution was to shout in response to an SWP member who called them sectarian, “it’s not sectarian to stand against fucking rape apologists.” It’s the small things.

The politics of trashing stalls

Is it OK to upturn a stall, rip up placards, aggressively confront people in this way? I know that many in the anti-privatisation campaign think not. I would remind them of the techniques their own campaign has employed. Remember the people who said occupying a building was too far? Who said ‘why don’t you just talk to management instead’? Who could only focus on a smashed-in door rather than your message? If you can, you should also remember your reply. When democratic channels break down, when people refuse to listen to the people being fucked over, it’s not only right but necessary for direct action. It’s absurd to focus on a smashed-in door, a burnt-out bin or a knocked over stall rather than the angry and righteous message being conveyed.

I have heard people try to talk about the necessity of chucking the SWP off campus, and I have heard them being ignored and shut down. A woman behind me at a recent Sussex protest defended the SWP by saying, ‘it was only one member’ who was raped. How many rapes, cover-ups and angry confrontations will it take?

A final consideration: the sexual violence and cover-up is not only the actions of a few people who happen to be in the SWP. This is an institutional problem. A large group of people ostensibly in charge of resolving ‘disputes’ within the party put a rape survivor on trial in a kangeroo court. The SWP recently had their annual conference; the pre-conference bulletin contained a long rape-apologist screed (pp. 5-11) and instructions to recruit young students who are less likely to be aware of the recent rape cover-ups (p. 81). There are also reports that during the conference, a member expressed the view that because women lie about rape, the SWP’s actions were completely justified.

What we should do

We need to keep the pressure up. The more voices are raised against the SWP’s visible presence on campus and at protests, the quicker we can shut them down.

If you feel you can, verbally confront those giving out SWP merchandise, and those accepting it. This shouldn’t be our job, and goodness knows I rarely have the mental energy or courage to do it alone, but if you can, do.

If you see someone confronting SWP members, back them up. Even if it’s only shouting encouragement, or talking to them afterwards and letting them know you’re on their side.

Write, tweet and blog about it.

For those of you involved in the anti-privatisation campaign or Occupy Sussex, hear your own words. “Solidarity is a weapon, not a word.” When the word “solidarity” slips out of the mouth of an SWP supporter, it’s like a knife in the back of women, feminists, and rape survivors. It tells us you don’t understand what solidarity means. It shows us you’ll let us have some justice, but only after your revolution.

You have an SWP problem in your ranks. And we’re going to do something about it.

Further reading

Kill the SWP inside your head – Another Angry Woman

Rape Culture – Geek Feminism Wiki

“The politics of the SWP crisis – a response – International Socialism

SWP off campus – Autonomous Student Network Sussex

An infestation of SWP leeches – Revolting Pleb

UPDATE: Socialist Feminist in the comments noted that the Socialist Party are also having a misogyny problem, revolving around a domestic violence case. You can read about it here: The left and women’s rights: Why the cases of Steve Hedley is as serious as the case of Martin Smith – Women’s Fightback



A self-fulfilling prophecy

I recently read a comment on a this really interesting piece by Ally Fogg, which argued that intersectionality is not an ‘intellectually sound’ concept and that there is no basis for it in academia.

This is the most ironic comment in the history of comments.

The concept ‘intersectionality’ originated outside of the academy. The concept came from Black feminists, particularly groups like the Combahee River Collective, whose statement is a cornerstone of intersectional feminism. From roots outside of academia, it planted itself firmly at the heart of disciplines like Black feminist and critical race studies.  The term ‘intersectionality’ was coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, an academic. It’s at the heart of  ‘Black Feminist Thought,’ Patricia Hill Collins, an academic. It’s what bell hooks, an (you guessed it!) academic, wrote about so accessibly and powerfully.

Black feminist academics were writing about intersectionality before most of us were out of nappies.

If you believe intersectionality is not ‘intellectually sound,’ and you believe it is a new fangled word being shoehorned into the national lexicon by a bunch of over-privileged Gender Studies students, you are demonstrating the widespread silencing of Black feminist contributions to the academy, and to the movement as a whole.

Let’s be clear: intersectionality is a lived experience. It is the idea that people can experience different forms of interlinking oppression all at the same time. As a sociologist, that makes it ‘intellectually sound’ in my book.

Lessons to be learned:

a) something shouldn’t have to be embedded into the academy for you to accept that people live it every day

b) loudly explaining that intersectionality is not intellectually sound – and thereby ignoring the contribution of Black feminists to the academy – is demonstrating the need for intersectional thinking and activism.  The more you protest intersectionality isn’t a thing, the more it is definitely a thing.

c) anyone arrogant enough to proclaim that anything is not ‘intellectually sound’ should be prepared to have their ass handed to them, unless they can demonstrate they have dedicated their academic career to understanding this one concept and have concluded, after a great deal of analysis, that said concept isn’t ‘intellectually sound.’

Edited to add: A commenter kindly pointed out to me that Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined ‘intersectionality, so I updated the third paragraph to make that clear. I also added bell hook, cos, you know, bell goddam hooks!

“Stop squabbling, ladies”

There is a constant stream of articles from various online sources – newspapers, blogs, periodicals – which argue along these lines: Feminism’s main problem right now is in-fighting. We’re too busy firing shots at one another and getting ourselves worked up about the latest Twitter spat that we’re forgetting the Real Enemy. The Real Enemy is watching our catfights, licking his lips and rubbing his hands together in glee, and maybe hoping we’ll all have a pillow fight in our underwear. He is Patriarchy, and we are letting him win.

That’s bollocks.

When it’s pointed out how bollocks that argument is (I can have a Twitter spat and still have a hand free to fight the Patriarchy, easy), then some feminists themselves weigh in with a bit of yellow-bellied kow-towery. “We are a bit aggressive sometimes,” they wheedle. “You lot really were nasty to Caitlin Moran,” they pout. “You’re making feminism look more elitist than the Bullingdon Club. You’re discouraging dissent and punishing those who disagree,” they wail.

That’s also bollocks.

Here’s the deal with almost any political movement on the planet, which I’ll illustrate by invoking the (universal, I’m sure) metaphor of a student political group meeting. I’ll dub them Student Political Group. Here’s how it goes: You have some unifying goals, otherwise you wouldn’t all be at the meeting. You have lots of other stuff you wildly disagree on, and that’s cool. You stick with the people you agree with, but have useful debate and healthy disagreement with others. But then there’s always someone careering around the room, interjecting every five minutes with some non sequitur about Isreal and Palestine, making a nuisance of themselves, and saying things like, “so what if Julian Assange had sex with her whilst she was sleeping, it’s not rape-rape!”

This person needs to be dealt with, because they are identifying as a member of Student Political Group, they keep writing their vile views in the student newspaper because their mate’s the editor, and they are making everyone ashamed to be associated with them. They are actively destroying the useful work Student Political Group are trying to do, because they are a complete and utter knob.

So, you ask them to leave, or write a response to their article in Student Newspaper, or continually have explosive, derailing arguments about why exactly it is white people don’t use the n-word. And people, most of whom aren’t even involved with Student Political Group, accuse you of crushing dissent like a big hairy Feminazi.

Here’s another little truism: if you, a Famous Person, say sexist/racist/transphobic shit on Twitter, you may as well be shouting it through a loud-hailer into a crowd of millions. People will shout back. And, as with most crowds of people, 50% of that shouting will actually be constructive and attempting to open debate, 25% will be people shouting “I HAVE ALWAYS LOVED YOU, YOU CAN DO NO WRONG,” 15% will be absolute knobs and bullies who just want to humiliate and threaten you, and 10% will be people saying “What the fuck? What did I miss? Why are we shouting? WHY ARE WE SHOUTING?” But in the end, it all just sounds like shouting to you, the Famous Person who shouted through the loud-hailer in the first place.  Yes, I agree that nobody should be bullying, slanderous, threatening or abusive just because you don’t like something that Famous Person said. But I also think that you will get that knobbish 10% who will be abusive and threatening no matter what subject you’ve shouted about down that loud-hailer. You don’t stamp them out by saying, “stop arguing on Twitter.” They are knobs. They won’t listen.

Let’s apply all of this useful advice (which I’m doling out for free, you lucky things) to our favourite whipping-girl of the moment, the feminist movement. We can’t police one anothers’ identities  by saying that someone can’t identify as a feminist because they slut-shame, ignore the experiences of non-white people, or engage in hate speech against trans people. The reason that we can’t say that is because no one has a monopoly on what the label ‘feminist’ means. However, we can self-critique. We can self-improve. We can say, “you might call yourself a feminist, but that slut-shaming article you just wrote plays into strong misogynist ideas about women, and that’s not cool.” We can say, “Banning trans women from your women-only event means you have a strict idea about what a woman is, and as a fellow feminist I’m not down with that.” We can say, “I respect that we have differing views on sex work, but when you reduce sex workers to caricatures you’re engaging in some really oppressive language, and I don’t find that fits with your other feminist beliefs.”

Here’s another nugget of truth. Suggesting feminists argue too much amongst themselves plays into the hands of misogynists. Feminists don’t have an obligation to be nice and polite to one another, or anyone else; we have only the obligation that everyone in the world has, that of being a Decent Human Being. If you suggest that we all need to calm down, hug it out, and face the world with a sisterly smile, you’re the one who can’t tolerate dissent.

It is a concern if feminist debates turn people away from the movement. I have hope, however, which I draw from my own experience. When I first encountered feminism, I read some books, a blog post or two, and went along to a couple of meetings. Slowly but surely, I developed an idea of what type of feminist I was, and only then began to follow debates online, and formed opinions on them. I did not get thrown into the Twitterpit to fend for myself as feminists duelled around me, flinging words like ‘intersectionality,’ ‘kyriarchy,’ and ‘privilege’ around. I’m not sure why people imagine that’s the way new feminists are being introduced into the movement, as if the only feminist activity around is centered on a small collection of blogs and Twitter spats.

So go forth, argue amongst yourselves, and never stop getting worked up about the latest Moran faux-pas. Because you’re not the carrying the future of the movement on your shoulders, you’re not setting a bad example; you’re thinking critically and contributing to a continually adapting feminist discourse.

Just try not to be a knob about it, OK?

Why we still Reclaim the Night

This article was originally published by the University of Sussex newspaper, The Badger.

“Text me when you’re home safely!” Such a common conclusion to a night out – especially amongst female friends – may seem innocuous, even sensible. But for some campaigners, such commonplace behaviour reveals that women feel responsible for avoiding their own harassment and assault. Since 1977, feminist groups have organised marches through the streets for women who no longer wish to feel afraid of rape and harassment. These Reclaim the Night marches are still being organised around the UK with an almost unchanged message, despite having roots in 70s feminism. The London Reclaim the Night website demonstrates that 2nd-wave feminist aims can nestle happily alongside contemporary anti-austerity politics:  “With ideological cuts threatening the refuge and rape crisis movements in our country we need to take back the capital to demonstrate women’s support for essential women’s services, demand justice for survivors and spread the message that no woman is ever to blame for male violence against her.”

Caitlin Hayward-Tapp, a member of the Brighton Feminist Collective, explains why the group decided to run a local Reclaim the Night march to coincide with the main event in the capital. “It made sense to do a local march, since one of the first Reclaim the Night marches was here in Brighton,” she explains, but also indicates some disagreement with the “mentality” of the London organisers: “There’s been a history of transphobia [at London reclaim the Night] and also a strong anti-sex work sentiment, and that’s not something we choose to support at all.” Unlike in London, the Brighton event is not women-only, and embraces the presence of trans* people and sex-workers who may have their voices silenced by more traditional feminist groups. Caitlin indicates that the silencing of those groups, who have a strong claim to needing safe streets, is “frankly offensive.”

She strongly believes that the task of ending street-harassment and victim-blaming is just as important as it was 40 years ago: “Women are still not feeling safe in the streets. People still think women should be walked home by a male friend at night, even though women are more likely to be attacked by someone they know. There’s a real culture of fear, and of blame too: if a woman was walking on her own and got attacked people will say, ‘well, she should have been with someone, she was asking for it.’”

The statistics reveal this to be no hyperbole. According to the Pixel Project, dedicated to ending violence against women, and the Stop Street Harassment campaign, the percentage of women who report being subjected to harassment in public is regularly recorded as 80-90%. The number of women who have experienced sexual violence is between 1 in 4 and 1 in 7. Defined by the Stop Street Harassment campaign as “[c]atcalls, sexually explicit comments, sexist remarks, groping, leering, stalking, public masturbation and assault,” harassment of this kind is a perennial feminist issue due to its strongly gendered nature: women are mostly the victims, and men are mostly the perpetrators.

Speaking to students on campus, it appears to be on the minds of many young men and women. Tori, a student at Sussex, suggests that street harassment should be of paramount concern to anyone who cares about women’s rights. “It happens to everyone I know whether they identify as female or not. If they’re perceived as female they get catcalled, shouted at, called a dyke…” They explain that Reclaim the Night is an important way of raising awareness and “making it into a national issue, because right now it’s being ignored.” Kye, another member of the Brighton Feminist Collective, agreed that street harassment was a common occurrence for women, “without a doubt. It’s one of those unspoken things that nobody wants to talk about.”

The NUS Women’s Campaign tackled this perceived ignorance around women’s safety with their Hidden Marks report, published in 2010. 1 in 7 female students reported experiencing a serious physical or sexual assault during their time at university, and 68% had experienced verbal or non-verbal harassment in and around their institution. Despite reporting loss of confidence and increased fear after being harassed, only 2% of respondents reported ‘less serious’ assaults because they felt what had happened to them was not serious enough to report. It is this fear of being dismissed that Reclaim the Night aims to tackle by demonstrating the widespread nature of street harassment and sexual assault.

How to tackle the problem is a matter of some debate. In the UK, there is no specific crime of ‘street harassment,’ meaning that victims have limited options if they wish to report their attacker. Jennifer, a student in London, was groped by a man on the street earlier this year. She was told her options were to press charges of sexual assault, which would go to court, or the officer could book him for being drunk and disorderly. Jennifer felt that “just straight away it was down my throat as ‘are you serious enough about this to go through the criminal justice system over a man grabbing your butt?’” She is still waiting to find whether she will have to give evidence in court.

Many Sussex students worried that, were street harassment to become illegal, it would be a difficult crime to define. “I think it would make me feel more safe,” said Amy, who admitted to pretending to be on the phone when walking alone at night to deter harassers, “but it depends how it was enforced.” Tori agrees: “It would be difficult to enforce, but I would like to see harsher penalties for things like following someone home. I’d like to be able to call the police and for them to take it seriously.”

Some women go to great lengths to avoid harassment and assault, like psychology student Rhianna. She has a routine of safety measures for walking alone at night, including “a personal attack alarm that I always carry in my pocket, I actively avoid streets with poor street lighting, and I have a safety text ready send out immediately to my boyfriend or my mum.” Her measures are not exceptions, but seem to echo a feeling amongst other female students that if they don’t take precautions, they could be targets of violence. Esme, a first year Films Studies student, reflects on the messages she absorbed from family and friends: “always travel in groups at night, make sure not to go down any dark alleyways, that sort of thing.”

Other women feel that Brighton is home turf, and does not pose many threats to them. In light of that, campaigns like Reclaim the Night and Stop Street Harassment run the risk of over-emphasising women’s victimhood and reinforcing the culture of fear that is a daily routine for many female students. Vee, a student in her first year, expresses this concern but places the blame firmly at the door of misogynist culture rather than feminist campaigners. “When you’re kids…that’s when it all starts, in my opinion. Don’t tell girls that they’re vulnerable because they’re girls and that boys are tough and strong.” Alicja, a first year medic, feels that Reclaim the Night does portray women as victims, “but in a good way!” She explains, “It raises awareness that [women] are victimized. I’ll be going on the march this year.”

Despite the regular comments from the media on the ‘death of feminism,’ it is clear that Reclaim the Night’s message still resonates strongly with young people, and thousands are expected to march in London on the 24th November. As austerity measures kick in and funding for rape crisis centres and women’s refuges dries up, these protests are only set to get bigger, louder, and angrier.

International Women’s Day: Bridging the local and the global

This article was originally published at The Yorker.

On Thursday, 8th March, women and men will be standing on Library Bridge, windswept but smiling. They’ll be holding a large banner covered in messages of solidarity, hope and thanks for the slowly improving rights of women across the world as part of the ‘Join Me on the Bridge’ campaign.

International Women’s Day was founded in 1911, to celebrate the achievements women’s rights campaigners, and to look forward to future triumphs. In 2010, women from the neighbouring countries of Rwanda and Congo joined one another on the bridge connecting their lands to oppose violence against women; every year since, women globally have emulated this move, meeting one another to express solidarity with women in war-torn countries who are demanding peace and equality.

Feminists in the west are often confronted with the challenge of looking beyond their borders, and finding ways to combine local activism – which may only benefit relatively privileged women – with activism on a global scale. It can be a daunting prospect. How do we, women and men being educated at a prestigious British university, use our knowledge and freedom to help oppressed women across the globe without imposing our own values and cultures on campaigners trying to gain equality on their own terms?

We can begin by listening to them. To the women in Saudi Arabia, defying the law to prove they are unafraid to claim their equal place with men. To the women in Sierra Leone, educating one another in the harms of Female Genital Mutilation. To the women in DR Congo, used as agricultural labour by the men who own the rural community’s income. To the millions of Afghan girls enrolling in school, when ten years ago there were only a few thousand. To the women in so many countries, doing back-breaking labour alongside men, then looking after the children alone – because that’s ‘women’s work.’

To ensure everyone listens, we have to remind the media, the government and our educators that these voices are out there. As futile as signing a petition, writing a letter to your MP, or introducing a speaker to a local school might feel, never underestimate the importance of awareness-raising. Without that, people with the resources to help and make large, deeply influential changes might remain deaf to the voices that often get missed; to miss women’s voices is a grave mistake.

When we finally listen, we discover something important. Although International Women’s Day is a chance for many of us to step back and remember that there is a global movement towards gender equality, it is also important to remember that women are not a homogenous group. Issues of suffrage, reproductive rights and education (to take only three examples) may be almost universal problems for women, but the solutions to these inequalities may differ from country to country, or culture to culture. As vital as it is that women attain the rights they deserve, it is imperative for western feminists to avoid falling into cultural imperialism and dictating the direction of indigenous feminist movements. From speaking to feminist activists outside of the UK, I’ve learnt that western feminism, with its sexual liberation and pro-choice politics has a bad reputation in many countries, particularly religious states, where even women’s groups shun association with it. That has to be OK with us. Our way of doing feminism isn’t the only way.

If you come and join us on the bridge this Thursday, we can make the first step of showing that we are listening, and that we want to learn. From there, it’s all down to you – what can you do for women this International Women’s Day?

London-centricity and the Northern lass

I have never really lived close to London. In fact, I have never really lived in the South (the West Midlands doesn’t count, as southerners are very keen to affirm). Reading the broadsheets and perusing the BBC news website, however, I sometimes feel like I should be.
There is a common syndrome that affects Londoners, and quickly infects anyone who moves there: the Everything Happens in London Syndrome. For EHLS sufferers, London is the limit of their imagination; beyond the Home Counties, there are some vague grey shapes, and something called The North, but apparently it’s all a bit grim there.
Unfortunately, if you work for a major broadsheet or for the BBC, the chances are you’ll live near London (although the BBC are trying to set up camp in Manchester – let’s see how much grumbling we’ll hear about that).  Therefore, news stories have a tangible London-centricity, with events affecting anywhere else labelled as ‘regional.’
I notice this occasionally, but it has riled me recently because of the reporting of the Slutwalks which hit British shores last week. I attended both Newcastle and Manchester’s Slutwalks, both of which attracted large crowds, especially the latter. The Newcastle event was not reported on the BBC website; Manchester’s received one paragraph. But guess what? London’s Slutwalk yesterday merited a long analysis and feature report.
It’s the same story on the Guardian, Independent and Telegraph websites (let’s take it as read that the Page -3-toting tabloids aren’t going to add to the Slutwalk debate meaningfully…) In some ways I understand – the event in London is the biggest. But most reports only briefly mentioned the widespread nature of the marches, or failed to do so at all.
But one of the most fantastic things about Slutwalks are their grassroots nature. They have sprung up across the UK independent of one another; wherever you live, there WILL be a Slutwalk nearby over the next month or so. It would be great to see the media emphasising this, instead of reinforcing the tired old view that Everything Happens in London.

It’s even more pertinent, in my view, for local feminist and women’s groups to support local Slutwalks rather than just flocking to London. Building bridges and showing solidarity with your nearest groups is always immensely useful and a reminder you’re not alone – Slutwalks are the perfect chance to do this.

On abortion – Don’t patronise pro-choicers. We understand the pro-life position; we just don’t buy it

This is reposted from Shrillblog, a student feminist website which hosts great debates and runs articles on everything from street harassment to body hair. Check it out.

It is often the case that as the economy suffers, political opinion swings towards traditional, and often to the right. The right to abortion was settled a while ago in the UK and the US, or so we thought; US lawmakers are becoming increasingly hostile to abortion, and there has also been a revival in anti-abortion rhetoric in the UK.

One thing should briefly, but emphatically be said: do not think that economic woes and financial crisis should monopolise our efforts and discussion, simply because they are the most pressing or urgent issues. Gayle Rubin, the American feminist and queer theorist, wrote in 1984 that:
to some, sexuality may seem to be an unimportant topic, a frivolous discussion from the more critical problems…But it is precisely at times such as these, when we live with the possibility of unthinkable destruction, that people are likely to become dangerously crazy about sexuality…Disputes over sexual behaviour often become the vehicle for displacing social anxieties, and discharging their attendant emotional intensity. Consequently, sexuality should be treated with special respect in times of great social stress.
When the world begins to shake, people panic, and whilst they panic social justice can be set back decades because sexuality, or abortion, or gay rights are not deemed important enough to be dealing with right now. And that’s precisely why it is imperative that we dodeal with them, right now.
My attention was recently drawn to this blog post, which touches on the central feminist issue in abortion debates: the importance of bodily autonomy. The title introduces the author’s position rather bluntly: ‘Opposing abortion means denying a woman’s right over her own body.’ We’ll skip over the problem of a man without a uterus dismissing the concerns of those of us with uteruses (uteri?)* as ‘ill-advised.’ Yes, men may be involved in the decision to terminate a pregnancy, and their personal feelings on the matter are important in the appropriate contexts. But there is a significant problem with men offering opinions on the specific issue of another person’s bodily autonomy as if their feelings on the matter were unimportant.
The argument in the blog post is quite simple: opponents of abortion do not oppose the right to bodily autonomy; rather, they believe a foetus is a separate life with some rights, and as such they believe that anyone has a right to someone else’s body. Therefore, it is ‘bullshit’ to claim that pro-life supporters don’t think people have a right to control their own bodies. ‘Which, whether you agree…or not, is not that fucking irrational or hard to understand.’
We do understand that. But we also understand that there is much more to the picture.
The question of what rights a foetus has, or whether or not it is even a ‘life’ at all, is widely contested. So let’s leave that behind for a moment. Even if we believe that a foetus has some rights, we can still make the claim that opposing abortion means actively and directly harming people. Rates of abortion do not decrease significantly in countries where abortion is made illegal. People still seek abortions. Often, they find someone to provide them; too often, they find someone who does the procedure unsafely. Too often, they die. This is not irrational, or hard to understand: opposing abortion kills people. It could be argued that these people were prepared to commit a crime, use up their savings and risk their lives all in the name of their bodily autonomy.
We can also easily claim that opposing abortion means denying a person’s right to good mental health. This is so well supported and corroborated that it is frustrating to see pro-life activists deny it so frequently. Some people do regret their abortions, and many find it an emotionally draining or unhappy process; but the consequences of denying abortion and forcing someone to give birth when they do not want to has staggeringly higher mental health risks than abortion does. The only study ever done which claimed to show a link between abortion and mental health problems has been decisively debunked as unscientific. And, of course, listening to people’s stories shows how common feelings of relief, gratitude, and certainty surround real abortions.
Eventually, we get round to the personhood question.
The law in Britain currently allows abortions up until 24 weeks (except in extreme cases). After 24 weeks, it is medically possible for the baby to be born and have a decent chance of survival with medical support. In 2003, the CDC found that in the US, 61% of abortions were completed at less than 8 weeks of gestation, and 88% were completed at less than 13 weeks. At 13 weeks, a foetus is between 2.6 and 3.1 inches and only has a few functioning organs (kidneys and urinary tract); at 8 weeks it’s about the size of a kidney bean, and its bones have only just started to form.
I think it is entirely uncontroversial to say that, going by this data, most abortions occur at a stage when the foetus can only be considered as a part of its mother. A kindey-bean-sized piece of matter is not a person in its own right; a 3-inch-long foetus is not a human life in the same way as the mother is. Taking this position, it is absolutely right to say that opposing abortion means denying a person’s right over their own body. At such an early stage, it is the mother’s body, and some of us do not want to go through the radical changes this tiny proto-baby will create as it grows, let alone go through labour, let alone go through actually raising a child for the next 18 years. Yes, it’s a potential person, but I’ve got a whole army of potential people in my egg-laden loins, and no-one sheds a tear when I get my period (apart from me, although for other reasons).  Putting actual people before potential people is such a basic premise it really doesn’t need an explanation, I’m sure.
As for late-term abortions? The CDC study found that 4.2% of abortions occurred at 16-20 weeks, and only 1.4% at more than 21 weeks. They are so rare because there must be danger to the life of the mother (or risk of major injury), or evidence of major foetal abnormality. That last one is perhaps the most controversial, and deserves its own post; for now, I would point out that late-term abortions are rare, hard to obtain, and usually have very good justifications.The basic rule of thumb here is choosing the option that causes the least amount of suffering, and that can get difficult when gestation is so far advanced.
This is what pro-choicers are trying to say. We aren’t irresponsible, callous or unaware of the debate raging around the line between life and not-life. We are recognising the great range of reasons someone might feel pregnancy is a bad situation for them, and indeed for the resulting child. We also recognise that abortion is not the right option for everyone, which is why we’d like the choice. The only other alternative is to force – literally force – some people to give birth, and I challenge anyone to convince me that option is morally superior.
The intention of anti-abortion supporters may not be to harm people, but that is the consequence.
*Throughout this article, I have avoided framing abortion as a ‘woman’s issue’, because this discussion often erases those who want abortions but do not identify as women. I think it is necessary and possible to reframe the abortion debate in an inclusive way without depoliticising it, or removing it from the centre of feminist activism.
Read the response to my article here and get stuck in to the debate.