Women's bodies are under threat—so why don't they get the same attention as gay rights?

The new justice secretary, David Lidington, has a worrying record on abortion—it's time we talked about it

June 14, 2017
David Lidington has voted with the "pro-life" lobby repeatedly. Photo: PA
David Lidington has voted with the "pro-life" lobby repeatedly. Photo: PA

The recent appointment of David Lidington to the role of Justice Secretary has raised justified alarms with human rights campaigners and progressive commentators. His voting record on LGBT issues has been particularly noted for censure—including the fact he repeatedly voted against equal marriage in 2013.

However, while we have heard a lot of legitimate concerns raised about his voting record on gay rights, the media and progressive politicians have been largely silent on another human rights issue that Lidington opposes: a woman’s right to safe and legal abortion.

Lidington’s attitude towards abortion should concern anyone who cares about women’s rights. His voting record includes attempting to reduce the abortion upper time limit to 12 weeks. In 2011, he voted in favour of banning abortion support providers from offering counselling services. According to figures published by the anti-abortion campaign group SPUC, Lidington has voted with the so-called pro-life lobby 31 times; eight times specifically on issues around abortion.

Lidington’s appointment to Justice Secretary will be rightly taken as a threat to women. So why has he been criticised for his attitude to LGBT rights, while there’s been all but silence when it comes to his views on abortion?

Let’s not be coy. There is a simple reason why attitudes towards LGBT rights are increasingly under the spotlight when abortion isn’t.

In a 2015 article for The Nation, Katha Pollitt wrote that there was a reason the fight for gay marriage was being won, while the campaign for abortion rights was losing ground:

“Same-sex marriage is something men want. Lesbian couples account for the majority of same-sex marriages, but even the vernacular ‘gay marriage’ types it as a male concern. That makes it of interest to everyone, because everything male is of general interest.”

As someone who grew up in a gay family, I am glad that MPs and the media are actively defending gay rights. However, we cannot ignore the fact that Pollitt is right: we are quicker to defend LGBT rights than abortion rights because they affect men, too. Any issue that has an impact on men’s access to justice and equality has more traction than one which is seen to merely affect women.

Since Friday, there’s been some discussion on whether a deal with the DUP would mean an attack on women’s access to abortion in England, Wales and Scotland. On Radio 4’s Today programme, Tory MP Owen Paterson reassured listeners that LGBT rights would be protected, while suggesting there “might” be a vote on reducing the existing upper time limit on abortion.

There’s been no suggestion since that the DUP would push for such a vote. But with the appointment of anti-choice Cabinet Minister like Lidington, there is a chance that a threat to abortion rights could come from within the Tory party itself. In 2011, Lidington voted in favour of Nadine Dorries’ motion to ban charities such as Marie Stope and BPAS from offering abortion counselling while allowing anti-choice organisations to do so. This motion was a purely ideological attack on access to abortion. While other votes cite foetal viability as a reason to restrict access, Dorries’ motion was focused on denying women support and care when trying to access reproductive healthcare.

Meanwhile, Lidington’s appointment and the DUP alliance means that any moves to bring abortion law in Northern Ireland, where women can be prosecuted for obtaining a termination, in line with the rest of the UK now look to be on hold. Today, a Supreme Court ruling confirmed women from Northern Ireland are not entitled to NHS abortions. Recent attempts to move abortion out of criminal law are also likely to be stymied.

It’s time this was talked about. We need everyone who cares about a woman’s right to bodily autonomy to condemn attacks on this right from the DUP and hard-line Conservatives, just as they have condemned regressive views on LGBT rights. It is incumbent on every MP who believes in a progressive, human rights agenda to slam Lidington’s appointment on the grounds of his views on abortion, just as they criticise his position on equal marriage.

To do otherwise is to accept that women’s rights are pawns to play in a political game, when men’s rights are not.