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The Development Of Pro-Choice Social Movement And The Abortion Debate From A British Perspective

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Social movements are loosely organised campaign’s in support of a social goal, normally either to achieve or prevent a change in society’s structure or values. Although social movements differ in size, they are all essentially joint. That is, they result from more or less unplanned coming together of people whose relationships are not defined by rules and procedures, but who merely share a common outlook on society (Boggs: 1986). Yet Toch, defined a social movements as “an effect by a large number of people to solve collectively a problem that they feel they have in common” (Toch:1971:5).

A movement is also seen as “a mixture of organisation and spontaneity” (Marshall:1998:615). Social movements have been defined as a form of action. Tilly defined social movements as challenges to the dominant social order. Yet all definitions of social movement reflect the notion that social movements are basically related to social change, yet they have existed throughout history, but those of the last several centuries are best understood. Within the 18th century, Methodism swept across England and America in one of the many examples of a religious social movement.

In the 19th century, the international Socialist movement grew out of smaller political struggles in individual European countries. The issue of slavery spawned several social movements in the United States, most notably Abolitionism in the North and Secessionism in the South. The 20th century has seen fascistic movements in Europe and the continued movement for civil rights in America. Recently, many countries have seen a revival of the movement against nuclear arms (Boggs: 1986).

Nonetheless, this essay will critically evaluate the pro-choice social movement and the abortion debate from a British perspective, including Northern Ireland. Firstly, defining what is meant in terms of a social movement. Secondly providing a brief history of the pro-choice social movement. Thirdly critically evaluating the pro-choice social movement to date, giving a history of the success and if any failure involved in the development of the movement, and lastly what the future holds for the pro-choice movement.

Social movements are directed toward a social goal. Yet in most cases, social movements exist to promote changes in the existing social order, although sometimes they hope to preserve the status quo in the face of threatened changes. Thus, social movements are testimony to the belief that people can effectively shape their societies to fit a desired pattern and is mainly used today to characterise the movements of social protest that emerge, this term was applied to new political forces opposed to the status quo.

Yet nowadays it is used most commonly with reference to groups and even organisations outside the mainstream of the political system (Morris, et al: 1992). It may be argued that all movements tend to be either political or religious in character, depending upon whether their strategy aims at changing political structures or the moral values of individuals. Turner and Killian cited in Mc Adam and Snow: 1997, argue that it is useful at times to categorise social movements on the basis of their public definition, the character of the opposition evoked, and the means of action available to the movement.

This scheme is designed to eliminate the subjective evaluation of goals inherent in such categories as reform and revolutionary. A movement that does not appear to threaten the values or interests of any significant segment of society is publicly defined as respectable. If there is no competing movement advocating the same objective, it is also non-factional. The respectable non-factional movement must contend primarily with the problems of disinterest and token support, but it has access to legitimate means of promoting its values.

A respectable factional movement must contend with competing movements supporting the same general objective but also, has access to legitimate means of extending its influence. Yet, a movement that appears to threaten the values of powerful and significant interest groups within the society is publicly defined as revolutionary and in extreme cases encounters violent suppression. As a result, it is denied access to legitimate means of promoting its program (Mc Adam and Snow: 1997).

Another type of movement is defined as neither respectable nor dangerous but as peculiar; this type, seen as odd but harmless, encounters ridicule and has limited access to legitimate means (Mc Adam and Snow: 1997). Social movements can also be categorised on the basis of the general character of both strategy and tactics; for instance, whether they are legal or illegal. Still, the popular distinction between radical and moderate movements reflects this sort of grouping. An obvious difference between types of movements depends upon their reliance on violent or nonviolent tactics.

Yet a nonviolent movement may be defined as revolutionary or radical because it accepts civil disobedience, rather than legal or parliamentary planning, as a major feature of its strategy. It should be added that the distinction between violent and nonviolent movements is a relative one because a movement may shift rapidly from one to the other as it develops (Crossley: 2002). More general theories of the origin of social movements, suggest that social change may result in strains or conflicts in one or more crucial aspects of the social order.

Yet, strain arises when changing conditions create a situation in which the established norms no longer lead to accepted values. Strain in values arises when the values themselves seem to interfere with the satisfaction of important needs of a segment of the society (Tarrow: 1998). This sort of strain often arises when different groups, such as immigrants, minorities, or the younger generation, develop values that conflict with those of more established groups (Tarrow: 1998). Since the early 1970s two new strands of theory have arisen, one in the United States and one in Western Europe.

The first, called resource mobilisation theory, takes as its starting point a critique of those theories that explain social movements as arising from conditions of social disorganisation and strain and as finding their recruits among the isolated and alienated in society. By contrast, research mobilisation theorists argue that the success of social movements rests mainly on the resources that are available to it; this means forming coalitions with already-existing organisations, securing financial support, and growing effective and organised campaigns of political pressure.

As a result of this emphasis, resource mobilisation theorists downplay the factor of beliefs and irrational factors generally in the study of social movements (Crossley: 2002). The second theory is the new social movement theory. This particular theory derives from the Marxist view, which treats social movements as reflecting a struggle among classes that organised around economic production. That theory however, has been argued, to become less relevant as these particular classes have been drawn into collective bargaining, the welfare system, and other social advancements within the state (Morris, et al: 1992).

The “new social movements” that have arisen in their place are interpreted as struggles against the social inequalities, the dominance of the mass media, and other features of postindustrial capitalism and the welfare state. These include youth, feminist, peace, and ecological movements, as well as the rise of group conflicts based on ethnicity and race. Habermas cited in Boggs:1986, interpreted such movements as protests against the excessive size and rationality of the state and its bureaucracies and their intrusion into the private worlds of individuals.

However, with the debate of Abortion heating up, abortion has remained an issue. So, those actively involved in the abortion debate who opposes abortion tend to oppose virtually any abortion. Abortion like many rights has rarely reached the center stage of the decision process (Lovenduskim & Outshoorn: 1986:28). What needs to be understood is that the earliest reform came through the mechanisms which have been allowed to develop for the processing of difficult issues. With various different groups, often well-financed, highly vocal and tied to religious groups have tried to limit a women’s ability to choose an abortion. Lovenduskim ; Outshoorn: 1986: 36). Around 25% of pregnancies around the world end in abortion, with half performed in unsafe conditions. At least 70,000 women die each year as a result. Preventing this requires safe abortion to be affordable and readily available. Yet since the legalisation of abortion in 1967 British women have not had to risk death from unsafe procedures. Although the 1967 Act does not apply to Northern Ireland many women from the North and South of Ireland travel to England to have Abortions (Baird ; Rosenbaum: 1993: 7/8).

Unlike other social movements, the pro-choice movement as maintained its power even through its struggles. Since abortion in Britain became legal, British societies moral, attitudes and values have transformed. Within the Britain abortion has become the last taboo, with abortion being a mystery to most women, which much of the legal processes and medical choices remaining unknown. In 1967 Britain was pioneering for an introduction for legal abortion. Yet today it continues to lag behind (Marie Stopes International: 2002:3). Abortion has remained a problem throughout the centuries.

Northern Ireland for example has been a major problem for British decision makers since 1967, as it is not defined as a British Issue in Politics (Lovenduski ; Outshoorn: 1986: 33). Yet it like many issues has rarely reached the centre stage of the decision process until now. The abortion act of 1967 was an advantage piece of legislation for its day, however from a pro-choice point of view was seen as a posturing policy decision in that the resources for full implementation were not provided (Lovenduski ; Outshoorn: 1986:34).

A new organisation ‘Abortion Right’, was formed as a result of issues surrounding abortion. This association was formed in 2003 with the merge of the Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA) and the National Abortion Campaign (NAC), they were formed to fight for legal abortion in Britain in 1936, with the aim to stop the deaths and ill health caused by dangerous back-street and even self induced abortions. The ALRA organised a widespread campaign to obtain support from as many traditional groups as possible, this was remarkably successful with over 1,000 members in 1996, and this showed increase support for reform. Lovenduski ; Outshoorn: 1986: 52). In 1975 an anti-abortion bill was introduced to parliament to reverse the 1967 Abortion Act. Yet the public campaign to defeat the bill was a success and so led to the formation of NAC. There main aims were to defend the 1967 Abortion Act and prevent restrictions being placed on abortion, for abortion to be available at the request of the pregnant women within existing time limits, and lastly for the law in Northern Ireland to be brought in line with the rest of the United Kingdom (Marie Stopes International: 2002).

With the first reference to abortion in English law appearing in the 13th century. The law at the time followed teaching’s of the church that abortion was acceptable until quickening which was when the soul entered the fetus. This legal situation remained like this for centuries. In the 19th Century and early part of the 20th Century laws were brought to reduce the access to legal abortion. These laws controlled women’s lives until 1967, yet the law did not prevent unwanted pregnancies or the need for Abortion, and did not give a women an absolute right to choose to have an abortion.

It expanded the category of those eligible for an abortion (Lovenduski ; Outshoorn: 1986:37). So thousands of women resorted to back-street abortionists permanently damaging their health and in many cases dying (Marie Stopes International: 2002:5/6). On the other hand, during the 1930’s women’s groups and even MP’s were deeply concerned about the damage to health which resulted from unsafe, illegal abortion. A resolution was passed in 1934 by the Conference of Co-operative Women, which called for the legalisation of Abortion.

The Abortion Law Reform Association was Established in 1936. Its sole aim was to campaign for the legislation of abortion (Marie Stopes International: 2002:5). In a case during 1938, Dr Alex Bourne carried out an illegal abortion on a 14-year old rape victim, he still believed that abortions should be legal in exceptional circumstances. Bourne argued that the law did permit abortion before 28 weeks and allowed abortion when a women’s mental or physical health was in great danger. This ruling allowed a few women to have legal abortions over the next 20 years (Allsop: 2004:285).

During 1939 the Birkett Committee was set up to clarify whether doctors could perform an abortion to save a women’s life. But this was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. Still support for reform grew in the fifties. During 1960 and onwards fertility control became widespread with the growth of the women’s movement and the availability of the contraceptive pill, yet illegal abortion was still killing (Allsop: 2004:285). David Steele MP introduced the bill, which became the 1967 Abortion Act.

This act served to protect women and their doctors from prosecution for illegal abortion when the statutory grounds specified in the act were met by the circumstances of a particular pregnancy. Since it’s passage in 1967, the Abortion Act has been unsuccessfully challenged several times by anti-choice organisations which main aims are to restrict access to abortion (Allsop: 2004: 285). In 1974, the Abortion Act was threatened by James Whites a private members bill, which at the time was supported by anti-choice organisations.

Numerous pro-choice groups defended the 1967 Act against this, while the ALRA and many others made formal representations. Numerous women’s groups organised demonstrations and meetings. Which lead to the formation of the National Abortion Campaign (NAC) in 1975 which was established to protect the 1967 Act and further campaign for improvements (Marie Stopes International: 2002:7). With a second campaign to reform the bill was challenged by John Corries, this campaign was the most serious attack on abortion provision, it had four aims of which was to reduce the upper limit from 28 weeks to 20 weeks.

Secondly was to remove the statistical argument and reduce the social grounds for abortion. Thirdly to extend the conscience clause in such a way that any doctor might refuse to take part in abortions on moral grounds and lastly to restrict the scope of the charitable agencies from clinics carrying out abortions, so in turn making abortions more expensive and as a result adding delays to the necessary procedures. The Prime Minister was known at this stage to be in favour of restricting the act, with the SPUC and LIFE being highly involved during the election campaign.

With lobbying being intense during this process of the Corrie bill. By 1979 the pro-abortion rights group was in the position of protecting an existing policy (Lovenduski ; Outshoorn: 1986:55/56). Yet, Corrie withdrew his bill in 1980 after groups continued to achieve their initiatives. Yet in 1990 the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act introduced new controls over recent techniques on embryo’s. The 1990 Act lowered the legal limit from 28 to 24 weeks. While the current law in 2005 is based on the Abortion Act of 1967, abortion has not exceeded its 24th week.

Yet abortion is legal after 24 weeks only of two doctors certify that there is a substantial risk of fetal abnormality or that the abortion is necessary to save the women from death and even permanent injury (Voice For Choice:2003:1). By allowing doctors to exercise wide discretion and make personal judgments over women, the 1967 Abortion Act creates a climate of uncertainly and the potential for unfair discrimination on women who may already be facing one of the most difficult and traumatic decisions in their lives (Voice For Choice:2003:1).

With the introduction of the Abortion Law in 1967 there was a rapid rise in the legal abortion rate up until the early 1970’s. Over this time the number of legal abortions increased as women and doctors adjusted to the new law. With an increase in the abortion rate during the 1980’s continuing into the 1900’s was mainly due to the number of scares about the safety of the pill, this lead to an increase in unplanned pregnancies and the need for abortions (Marie Stopes International: 2002).

Because the law in Britain is more liberal than in surrounding counties, private clinics, especially in London began dealing with these cases, London was seen as a ‘marketplace’ for abortions. Press attention tended to focus on the effort to reduce the upper time limit to twenty weeks from twenty eight, this will be explained in more detail later. But only 1% of abortions were performed after the twentieth week, often because the mothers life is at risk ( Lovenduski ; Outshoorn: 1986:41). Although abortion has been legal in the UK since 1976, it is not a right or a matter of free choice.

The final decision does not rest with the women, but with two doctors. The UK there has been constant attacks on the law since 1967 and the pro-choice movement has had to fight to keep abortion legal. Yet as the media continues to sensationalise the issue, focusing the debate around the fetus, the pro-choice movement believes that women can be trusted to make the right choices about their bodies and their lives. So believing women have a right to control their fertility. Simply because the right to an abortion exists ( Lovenduski ; Outshoorn: 1986:44).

Yet there is no doubt that for women in the child-bearing age range, abortion and many other birth control questions have always been a highly salient issue. While this salience cannot be underestimated those affected directly by the problem form a small proportion of the population. But among this percentage of the population directly affected by the abortion question, a large number may actually be more sympathetic to its use as a birth control method when other methods fail or are unavailable (Lovenduski ; Outshoorn: 1986:44).

Once people interested in abortion began to adapt the problem to an issue, they faced a number of obstacles, the first being the unwillingness of politicians to confront the issue of abortion, because politicians have not felt comfortable with this issue the tendency for the government is to leave it to one side, which for them is the only means available to deal with highly controversial issues such as that of abortion. In Britain it is the PMB, who have been frequently attacked.

With the PMB still acting as a parliamentary association, who requires agreement by the lords before the Royal Assent is received.. On the other hand the anti-abortion groups must queue for parliamentary attention along with the whole range of groups interested in questions which the government does not want to deal with directly (Lovenduski ; Outshoorn: 1986:47). As stated previously the NAC was important largely because of its success in deploying key sections of the British Labour movement in the support of the 1967 Act.

Throughout their work ALRA was not satisfied with the slight extension of the law brought about by the Bourne Trail. The association welcomed the trail for the publicity it produced. With the 1967 Abortion Act still only applying to England, Scotland and Wales. In recent years Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man have introduced their own legislation. With Northern Ireland abortions only be obtained if the women’s life is at risk and in slim cases of fetal abnormality Marie Stopes International: 2002:9).

With an average of 40 women every week make the journey to private clinics in order to secure abortion, giving the right to legal abortion services in Northern Ireland will end thirty years of the most obvious discrimination against a section of the United Kingdom community (Marie Stopes International: 2000). Every year more than 160,000 women in Britain have early abortions often because the pregnancy is unplanned and unwanted. Contraception sometimes fails and so it is possible for women to conceive even when they have taken measures to prevent it (British Pregnancy Advisory Service: 2004: 2).

While the current law in 2005 is based on the Abortion Act of 1967, abortion has not exceeded its 24th week, abortion laws have been challenged firstly in 2004 with the issue that abortion law should be changed, it should provide for abortion on request in the first three months of pregnancy, but the upper limit on abortion which is currently at 24 weeks to be brought down to around 22 weeks. Steels comments provoked a storm of debate in the media and political world. With the request to bring the abortion limit to 22 weeks, it was noted in July of 2004 that MP’s could vote in 2005 to lower the time limit of abortions.

Tony Blair backed a re-think of the law to take account of the abortion limit change (Anon: 2005:1). Yet Lord steel stated that with the medical advances, the current limit of 24 weeks was outdated. Speaking to the Scotland on Sunday newspaper, Lord steels said ‘If it’s simply the decision of the mother then the limit should be 12 weeks (Anon: 2004). This view is ludicrous, as many women need time decide on the issue of their pregnancy, Many teenagers put the idea of being pregnant out of their mind with fear of not knowing what to do, this the idea of reducing the current limit to 12 weeks can not be achieved.

Yet Tony Blair personally ‘dislikes the idea of abortion, although he has no plans to change the current limit of 24 weeks'(Cracknell:2005:1). Yet Michael Howard described the current situation of abortion to be ‘tantamount to abortion on demand’. Yet he promised to cut the 24 week abortion limit to 20 weeks. As he believed that ‘abortion should be available to anyone, but the law should be changed’ (Cracknell: 2005:1). Yet Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor had praised Michael Howard for taking a stand on abortion (Anon: 2005:1).

With these views in mind, many young women make-up a high percentage of late abortion, lowering the limit these women would have to keep an unwanted pregnancy. There are also issues around the older women who are per-menopausal and think that there is no chance of becoming pregnant, what will these women do if the limit is lowered. To conclude, a change in the law will change the views of the majority of British people who are in favour of abortion on request, the change will enable women to secure abortion earlier, when the procedures involved are particularly safe.

It will also bring the United Kingdom into line with the majority of Europe. Yet the fight continues today between pro-choice and anti-abortion movements . But the debate on abortion, since the passage of the 1967 Act has clearly been won by the significant majority that favours a woman’s absolute right to access the service. It will continue well into this century and beyond. With many pro-choice movements still struggling to achieve a victory with the British government.

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