The UK is no secular state. In every corner of UK law, parliament, the House of Lords, and the monarchy, are Christian traditions dating back centuries. From the reading of prayers before each sitting in parliament, the crime of blasphemy (specifically against Christianity) being abolished only in 2008, to the UK being the only western country that gives automatic right to religious representatives to sit in the legislature (26 Church of England bishops known as the Lords Spiritual). Religion, Christianity in particular, has permeated every aspect of UK law and political history.
In recent years, despite progress thanks to the work of abortion rights activists in the UK, we are witnessing a creeping religious conservatism and right wing populism in politics, that is threatening abortion rights across the the country. Firstly, and more overtly, in the growth of right wing populism and support for parties including the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the British National Party (BNP), and Britain First, who are all strongly anti-choice and homophobic. Support for these parties that has fuelled already rising racism and xenophobia, most recently witnessed in the rise in support for the right wing campaign for the UK to leave the EU.
Britain First, which describes itself as ‘a patriotic political party’, and calls for ‘our people to come first, before foreigners, asylum seekers or migrants’, was started by a christian fundamentalist and anti-choice campaigner that established the UK life league, an extremist anti-choice organization. The BNP who has pledged in the past to criminalize abortion and same sex relationships (now stating that same sex relationships are something they ‘tolerate rather than celebrate’), also have links with the extremist UK life league. Britain First and the BNP are not alone in their homophobic, anti-choice and extremist views. UKIP leaders have openly called for the abortion term limit to be halved, likened abortion with the killings of children by serial killers, and hold extreme right wing views on everything from same sex marriage to climate change. They all also claim, to be rooted in, and uphold, ‘British Christian values’.
Less overtly, because it is led by well spoken, political establishment members in suits and appearing less extremist, is the creeping religious conservatism in the government and public sector. For example, the 2017 deal between the Conservative party and Northern Ireland’s right wing Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), with their extreme anti choice and homophobic position, that allowed for a Conservative majority in parliamentary elections this year. Similarly, the race for next Conservative party leader, has included Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Catholic MP who is entirely and vocally opposed to same sex marriage, and abortion in all circumstances.
Although legal since 1967, abortion in the UK has not been decriminalized. Many restrictions remain, and in Northern Ireland abortion remains illegal unless serious risk to the health or life of woman. The British Medical Association (BMA) agreed in March of 2017, to lobby the Government to decriminalize abortion, as did the the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) in September this year. However, this was in the face of a letter from 650 doctors (described as conscientious objectors by anti-choice campaigns), demanding that both bodies refrain from taking such a position.
UK justice movements must address and expose the insidious links between religious conservatism, and the right wing movements and political voices, that are threatening abortion rights across the UK. Exposing and highlighting these associations, histories and the ideology and positions related to sexual and reproductive justice, of parties such as the BNP, Britain First and UKIP, and partnering with anti fascists movements and activists, should be part of core actions of resistance and persistence to realize abortion rights for all across the UK.