New Statesman, By Frankie Mullin
Behind the opposition to decriminalise both abortion and sex work lies the belief that some women are incapable of physical autonomy
Last week, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), alongside key women’s organisations, launched a campaign to decriminalise abortion. Across the UK, abortion is still governed by a piece of Victorian legislation that, outside rigid conditions, renders it a criminal offence.
Punitive law decreases safety, says BPAS. In this, the campaign resembles that led by Amnesty International last year, which called for the decriminalisation of sex work.
In both campaigns, cries for decriminalisation, bodily autonomy for women and anyone with a womb were at stake. Yet one was met with wholehearted support, while the other provoked fury.
In 2007, when Amnesty suggested that abortion should be removed from criminal law, a furious coalition of Catholic bishops claimed the charity was risking its "excellent record as a champion of human rights". Roll on to the sex work campaign of 2015 and the organisation was accused of the same, this time by a number of feminist groups (and the politically-astute Meryl Streep).
Does the crossover make you uncomfortable? Because crossover there is.
Behind the opposition to decriminalise both abortion and sex work lies the belief that some people – and both abortion and sex work are associated primarily with women, so specifically, some women – are incapable of physical autonomy, that their choices are so socially harmful, so deluded, they must be legislated against.
In both cases, abolitionists refuse to listen to those whose lives are at stake: the sex workers, and the abortion activists.
Feminists have traditionally united to fight for reproductive rights, but there is division even here. Last year, the Telegraph carried out a "sting", which highlighted the – in reality, virtually non-existent – problem of gender-selective abortion. Should the practice be illegal? No, say groups such as Abortion Rights UK, labelling gender-selective abortion coercion an issue of domestic violence, not of reproductive health.
“Criminalising ‘types’ of abortion is not the answer,” says the organisation. “This is punishing women for gender inequality in society.”
As with abortion – and with surrogacy, another bone of contention – so with sex work. Under capitalism, almost every form of labour reflects and is shaped by social inequality. Yet there’s no call to ban, for instance, the cleaning industry, which props up class, race and gender hierarchies.
Simply surviving can be a feminist act, can be "empowering" – that elusive, largely useless concept – but it isn’t always. Not every choice we make will fit within our dreams of political utopia. No one is claiming that agency always equals feminism. However, the removal of it, the demand for state intervention in women’s choices, is deeply anti-feminist. There’s nothing radical about denying us agency over our bodies.
A view of the state as a responsible arbiter of justice, and of the police as a benign force for good, is one that comes from a place of privilege. For many people, it simply isn’t the case.
Abolitionists who support the criminalisation claim to be protecting the vulnerable – unborn babies, trafficked women – but by allowing the state increased access, the outcome is yet more danger.
BPAS points out that those who are unable to access abortion on the NHS, even in England and Wales, tend to be migrants, women experiencing domestic violence, and the underage. These are the groups most at risk from criminalisation. Buying abortion pills online and carrying out a DIY home abortion is illegal.
Similarly, police have been shown to disproportionately target migrant and drug-using sex workers. Increasing law enforcement – for instance, by criminalising the buying of sex, as Northern Ireland has done – has been condemned by leading human rights organisations around the globe. In neither Norway nor Sweden, pioneers of the “end demand” model, has trafficking decreased. The inverse relationship between safety and police involvement is felt more keenly still in the Global South and East.
Feminists of carceral inclination will find an ally in Conservative MP Fiona Bruce, who led 2015’s campaign to ban gender-selective abortion and is now crusading to criminalise the buying of sex. While her surface sentiment – to protect women – is laudable, what underlies it is less pleasant.
Since 2010, Bruce’s party in government has slashed 50 per cent from domestic violence and sexual abuse services. Tory cuts have been repeatedly shown to hit women the hardest. Why then the special attention to abortion and sex work? Perhaps both are violations of the sacred family unit. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that both Bruce’s campaigns neatly align with her party’s anti-immigration agenda.
Sex work, surrogacy, DIY abortions – the controversial things we do with our bodies – may reflect inequalities, desperation sometimes, but they are not the inequality themselves.
In the US, the race gap in abortion (women of colour are five times as likely to terminate a pregnancy than white women) has been heavily exploited by pro-lifers. But the gap is the reflection of a problem – poverty and unequal access to resources – not the problem itself.
Human rights aren’t a hypothetical concept. Opposition to decriminalisation, built on subjective distaste, ignores the real, often imperfect, situations we find ourselves in.
Criminalisation feeds stigma, creates danger. Abortion may upset you, sex work may disgust you, but removing survival options will solve none of the inequality you claim to despise.