This is a guest post by Dr Marko Attila Hoare of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology. He blogs at https://greatersurbiton.wordpress.com/ and tweets at @markoah.
Rebecca Long-Bailey, one of the frontrunners in the contest for the Labour leadership, has come under fire for saying that she personally believes the time-limit for the abortion for disabled foetuses to be the same as for non-disabled foetuses (24 weeks into pregnancy), and that in case of any changes to Britain’s abortion law, she would ensure that the views of the Catholic Church were heard. Long-Bailey is widely regarded as the ‘Continuity Corbyn’ candidate and has the backing of the Momentum movement, so we are in the very strange position of seeing Labour centrists attacking a Corbynite politician for not being left-wing enough.
There is a cognitive dissonance between Labour centrists attacking Corbynites, probably correctly, for losing the election by being too left wing, then attacking a Corbynite leadership candidate for being insufficiently left-wing on abortion. While support for a radical liberalisation of Britain’s already liberal abortion laws is strongly supported by many Labour members, including those with moderate or centrist views on other issues, it is not popular with the British public, which would actually be sympathetic to a moderate change to the UK’s abortion law along the lines Long-Bailey suggested. And support for such a change is higher among women than men.
For many Labour centrists, radical abortion-law reforms are an obsession equivalent to the Labour left’s obsession with Palestine: a ‘progressive’ cause that may or may not be worthy, but is certainly not a major concern for most British people. Ironically, just as the Corbynites’ Palestine obsessions led many of them into the murky waters of anti-Semitism, so the abortion obsessions of certain Labour ‘moderates’ are leading them to outright anti-Catholic bigotry; most notably in the statement of Paul Mason, a supporter of rival Labour leadership candidate Keir Starmer, who tweeted that ‘I don’t want Labour’s policy on reproductive rights dictated by the Vatican’. Such tropes reflect the same sort of ‘dual loyalty’ insinuations regarding Catholics that some Corbynites and others have directed against Jews.
But just as left-wing anti-Zionism turns out not to be quite so ‘progressive’ when you look a little more closely, so too with the cause Long-Bailey’s critics are championing. Long-Bailey is objecting to an abortion law that explicitly discriminates against disability. As the law currently stands, an abortion cannot be performed on a non-disabled foetus or baby after 24 weeks of pregnancy (except when the abortion is necessary to prevent ‘grave permanent injury’ to the mother, or if her life is at risk from continuation of her pregnancy). But if the baby has a disability (‘there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped’), it can be aborted at any stage of pregnancy.
Apologists for the law claim that abortions on grounds of disability later than 24 weeks occur only in extreme cases. According to Katherine O’Brien of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) in her response to Long-Bailey’s supposedly ‘toxic’ views on abortion, ‘In 2018, just 289 abortions – 0.1 per cent of all terminations performed in England and Wales- took place post-24 weeks. This incredibly small group represents women and their partners who are dealing with the most desperate and tragic of circumstances. The reasons why women end a pregnancy on grounds of foetal anomaly include the effect on their ability to care for their existing children; the feeling that it is cruel to have a child who will need constant medical intervention and may live in pain; or being unable to cope with continuing a pregnancy when they know that their baby will die shortly after birth.’
This is untrue. Abortions are regularly performed on unborn babies with very minor disabilities, such as cleft palates or club feet, that can be easily corrected with surgery, or on those with disabilities like spina bifida or Down’s Syndrome, that are entirely compatible with living happy lives – and such abortions regularly occur later than 24 weeks. In 2003, Joanna Jepson, a woman herself born with a similar disability, learned of the case of a baby with a cleft palate aborted at 28 weeks’ gestation. Her attempt to have the doctors involved prosecuted was rejected by the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service on the grounds that ‘the doctors who authorised the termination had decided in good faith that a substantial risk existed that the child would be seriously handicapped if born.’ Charlie Fien, a young woman with Down’s Syndrome, gave a speech to the UN in May 2017 calling for an end to the extermination through abortion of people with her condition. Her ‘serious handicap’ was not so serious that it prevented her from speaking before the UN – an achievement that few of us ‘normal’ people can boast of – but it would have permitted her mother to have her legally killed in Britain even days before she was due to be born. One pregnant British woman was hurt and outraged at the pressure she was put under by NHS staff to accept an abortion of her Down’s Syndrome baby; even at 38 weeks, she was told ‘You do know we abort babies full term with Down’s syndrome ?’
There is a particular irony in the fact that members of a Labour Party that has been widely and rightly castigated for its tolerance of anti-Semitism are now uniting to defend discriminatory laws targeting the disabled. After all, the same Nazis who genocidally persecuted and killed Jews also targeted disabled people for extermination; Nazi mass murder of disabled people was a precursor to the genocide of the Jews. It is unclear why bigotry against disabled people should be more acceptable than bigotry against Jews.
A further irony is that the British law permitting abortion of disabled babies all the way up to birth – the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990 – was passed under the government of Margaret Thatcher – hardly thought of by Labour members as a ‘progressive’ prime minister. A major influence on Thatcher’s politics was her close friend and advisor Keith Joseph, who had had his own political career derailed in the 1970s after expressing eugenicist views about the undesirability of mothers of ‘low intelligence’ bringing ‘problem children’ into the world, so that ‘the balance of our human stock, is threatened’. The 1990 act, passed by a Tory-majority parliament and removing time-limits for aborting disabled babies, reflects similar a similar eugenicist ideology.
Finally, the assault on Long-Bailey was launched by the ‘Red Roar’ online journal, which appears to support Keir Starmer’s leadership bid, and which first published the article revealing her views on late-term abortion. Subsequently, the Red Roar has been promoting BPAS’s own assault on Long-Bailey. BPAS is an outfit headed by CEO Ann Furedi: a central member of the Revolutionary Communist Party sect that supported Karadzic’s and Milosevic’s genocide in the 1990s and that published articles denying the Rwandan genocide. Furedi is the wife of the sect’s principal guru, Frank Furedi. Even Oliver Kamm, a long-standing opponent of Bosnia-genocide denial who should know better, retweeted a tweet in support of BPAS vs Long-Bailey.
So, this is the ‘progressive’ character of the assaults on Long-Bailey: support for anti-disability discrimination that the British public doesn’t want; employing anti-Catholic tropes; in defence of eugenicist Thatcherite legislation; in collusion with an outfit headed by a member of a pro-genocide sect. Now it appears that Long-Bailey has capitulated to her critics, which is a pity; she had a unique opportunity to reshape the Labour Party to make it both more compassionate and more in tune with the British electorate. Instead, it seems destined to be a party just for Islington liberals.