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Feminspire | April 19, 2014

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Bad News For British Women After Government Reshuffle

Bad News For British Women After Government Reshuffle

Every day I read Feminspire, and every day I chat politics and social issues with my fellow writers and editors. Every day I am left speechless as I hear about how many of the American readers and writers of this site live in fear that Romney might be elected and they might lose control of decisions over their own bodies. I am terrified for them too, and I could only grit my teeth in gratitude to Lady Luck that I live in a country where my body is not, at least not politically, up for debate.

That has changed today, and I have had my very first taste of the worry that must gnaw at my American peers as their election approaches. Today, Prime Minister David Cameron reshuffled the cabinet and Jeremy Hunt, former Culture Secretary, has been made Health Secretary. This is a Big Deal and a Bad Thing for three reasons. The first two are less relevant to what I want to talk about but still important. He royally messed up his role as Culture Secretary, getting into all sorts of controversy over Rupert Murdoch’s bid for BskyB when it emerged that his aide was in close contact with News Corporation throughout a time period when Hunt was supposed to remain impartial. He also supports homeopathic hospitals. Homeopathy is not the same as herbal medicine or natural alternative medicine. It is a medical practice that has been condemned by the Word Health Organisation because it doesn’t work.

However, what has my heart beating a little faster this afternoon is not that our Health Secretary believes in a practice that doesn’t benefit health. It is what Jeremy Hunt doesn’t believe in that frightens me, and here we go with the big one: he doesn’t believe in abortion. At least, he doesn’t believe in a woman’s right to decide what happens to her body after a certain period of time. Back in 2008, Hunt voted for the abortion limit to be changed from 24 weeks to 12 weeks, against medical consensus and rebelling against his party. 12 weeks! The first indication of pregnancy is usually a missed period, which can happen in the fourth or fifth week of pregnancy. This many weeks in it’s still possible to get a false negative, and many women who have irregular periods might not even take a test at this stage. The first physical signs of pregnancy – morning sickness, tiredness, changes to the breasts – typically don’t appear until the seventh or eighth week, when our irregular lady might decide to take a test. So, our irregular lady finds out in Week 8 that she’s pregnant, and she doesn’t want a baby to grow in her body for any one of the countless reasons there may be. If our new Health Secretary had his way, she now has just over three weeks to make her decision.

But hang on. There are stages to this process. First, she visits her GP, who refers her to a specific NHS abortion service. Then she has an assessment at the hospital or clinic where her abortion will be carried out. Then they make a separate appointment for her to come back and have her abortion. This process sounds quite lengthy, doesn’t it? According to the NHS:

Waiting times vary around the country but, as a rule, you shouldn’t have to wait for more than three weeks from your initial appointment to having an abortion.

Shouldn’t. But then, you shouldn’t have to wait four hours in Accident and Emergency. You shouldn’t have to wait longer than six weeks for diagnostic tests, or wait over 18 weeks for treatment, or two weeks to see a cancer specialist, or 31 days for cancer treatment. But people do. Let’s say, though, for the sake of argument, that the NHS supports our lady brilliantly and she manages to schedule an abortion for three weeks after the day she finds out she’s pregnant. She’s only a few days off the 12 week limit Jeremy Hunt wanted to impose on her. And she’s had to make the life-changing decision of whether she wants a child to raise or not on the very same day she found out about it. Hunt doesn’t have time to waste while we emotional women flap around making petty choices! Positive pregnancy test? Decide NOW!

Thankfully, Hunt was in the minority when that vote was cast. So he voted again to reduce the limit to 16 weeks. Rejected. He voted again to reduce it to 20 weeks. Rejected. He voted again to reduce it to 22 weeks. Rejected. The rejections give me hope, because it reminds me that I don’t have the same reasons to be scared as my American friends, and that for the most part, the people that make up the British government support my right to choose. But Jeremy Hunt very evidently doesn’t – the new Health Secretary is anti-abortion. The new Justice Secretary once said Christian B&B owners should be able to turn gay people away from their accommodation. Our Prime Minister, who promised he would attempt to promote more women to senior roles, has demoted or sacked four of them while promoting only two. And this will be the first Cabinet for 15 years with not a single non-white Cabinet minister.

It makes me angry. It makes me frightened that this is just the first step. It makes me doubt my government even more than I did yesterday. It makes me feel that the people who run my country don’t believe in my right as a woman to make the decisions that affect my body. This feeling is something I’ve heard about, something my American friends talk about. But I never thought this feeling would cross the Atlantic and now that it has, I want it gone.

British readers, how do you feel about this reshuffle in our cabinet? Readers of other nationalities, what are your views on this? Join me in the comments to discuss.

Written by Abbey Lewis
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