Hunt’s abortion comments are both a feint AND an assault

Twitter is buzzing this morning with comments on Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s announcement that he “would favour a change in the law to halve the limit on abortions from 24 weeks into a pregnancy to 12“.

Understandably, many are outraged at the comment, but there’s also an interesting division among the objectors. Some are saying his comments are just an attempt to distract from the ‘main issue’ of the dismantling of the NHS; others are almost as outraged at the idea that a central issue for women is being called a ‘distraction’ as they are at Hunt’s comments themselves, which they feel are an assault on women that shouldn’t be regarded as a side-issue.

I think both points of view are as right as they are wrong – and both, to a degree, miss the point.

Think about it for a moment. Two senior Tories – Hunt and Maria Miller – both make statements saying they are in favour of reducing the abortion limit (though by different amounts). Neither was an ‘off the cuff’ statement or slip of the tongue, son by definition there is intent behind the fact of two such statements being made in concert. But at the same time, both Hunt himself and David Cameron stated that the government ‘has no plans’ to change the law, So there’s no immediate push to actually do anything at the moment.

There’s a large measure of posturing in these statements – playing to their core support just ahead of the Tories’ party conference. These statements don’t have the feel of unauthorised departures, nor of ‘maverick’ MPs going ‘off the reservation. The Tories are trying to signal to their supporters, most of whom feel that Cameron has had to compromise too much with the LibDems and isn’t right-wing enough, that at heart they’re as blue and reactionary as anyone.

To us, of course, the truth is plain. As Eoin Clarke said the other day, this is the most right-wing government in living memory, attacking key elements of our social structures that even Thatcher quailed at. But committed Tories and reality have a tenuous relationship with reality at best. How else can you explain the fact that Kwasi Kawrteng, Priti Patel, Liz Truss, Dominic Raab and Chris Skidmore, who wrote a book condemning British laziness that is full of statements that fly in the face of the statistics, are regarded as ‘rising stars’, or the fact that most Tories think that not being anti-Europe enough is the reason for their unpopularity?

But women’s campaigners are right to be worried. Without question there is an element in the recent pronouncements of setting up a ‘lesser of two evils’ kind of perception, whereby 12 weeks is dangled and then 20 weeks slips through because it doesn’t seem such a big change by comparison. If the Tories manage to retain power at the next election, I think there’s no doubt at all that this will be on their agenda – whatever the opinions of individual ministers, they’ll want to act up to the wishes of their core support.

Let me be clear. I don’t think there’s anything inherently hypocritical in holding a pro-life opinion. Not at all. What’s hypocritical in the right-wingers’ version of it is that they want to protect children while they’re in the womb but then are quite happy to penalise them once they’re born. Wanting to make abortion harder, or to eliminate it, is hypocritical if you’re not prepared to invest in supporting parents and their children. This government’s measures are hitting women in general, and single mothers especially, harder than anyone, yet it wants to put more women in that position. That’s hypocritical.

However, there’s far more to it than posturing, or preparing the ground for a future assault. For these statements to be made now, just weeks after Hunt was promoted to Health Secretary, is anything but co-incidental.

At last, the issue of the impact of the Health and Social Care Act on the NHS and its patients and staff is starting to achieve some media coverage outside the Guardian and occasionally the Independent. The BBC may have disastrously skewed its coverage of the issue of cut-backs, potential closures, and privatisation last week, but the issue was still on TV, in the papers and in people’s minds to a degree that will worry the government.

Without question, part of the Tories’ reason for these comments to be made now is a hope that it will both distract people from the dismantling of the NHS and divide the opposition. This is not to reduce women’s issues to a sideshow or a mere tactic – but it would be incredibly naive to think that there’s nothing tactical in the way the government is trying to use two issues to ease pressure on what to them is a core aim.

Much as the right might want to reduce abortion time-limits, undoing the Left’s greatest achievement by selling off and giving away the NHS to private interests and ending ‘free at the point of use’ is the Holy Grail for Tory, neoliberal ministers. Once that’s achieved, then they’ll come seriously after other targets on their health list.

All of the Tories plans and musings demonstrate how little value the Tories really place on anyone who is not one of them, whether that’s a pregnant woman who feels she can’t afford to have a baby, or a sick patient, or a disabled person, or someone who can’t find a job. And that’s where we should be focusing our attention – so that we unify rather than fragment.

It’s an error to call this issue a sideshow – and it’s an error to allow it to divert us from united resistance to everything this government is trying to do. Let’s bear that in mind in all our discussions and plans and ensure that, rather than being an issue that divides our attention, the government regrets giving us yet another rod to stiffen our resolve and our united resistance.

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