While Kylie Jenner was throwing a Handmaid's-Tale-but-make-it-sexy themed party, the rest of the world was genuinely wondering whether dystopian fact is becoming stranger than fiction when it comes to women’s rights.
Last August, women in the US dressed up in handmaids costumes to protest against Vice President Mike Pence who has said he is "proud" to oppose abortion. They were dismissed as "hysterical" and accused of "watching too much TV".
Many, including the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, have pointed out that the focus on abortion rights in America shouldn't distract us from paying attention to what’s going on in the UK. After all, we have what is in effect an all-out abortion ban right here, right now, in Northern Ireland.
Only very recently, Britain’s outgoing prime minister, Theresa May joined forces with Northern Ireland’s anti-abortion Democratic Unionist Party when she needed to shore herself up after losing the 2017 election and, in doing so, dismissed the wishes of 65% of people in Northern Ireland who believe abortion is not a crime for her own political gain.
As May prepares to leave office, 10 hopeful candidates are currently battling it out to fill her shoes. But only 160,000 people (all Conservative Party members) will have a say in which of these contenders becomes the new Tory leader and Britain’s next prime minister. We might not get a vote, but we still need to pay very close attention to what they’re saying.
Here’s why: one of them – Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt – has already expressed what have been called "alarming" views on abortion.
Speaking on Sophie Ridge’s Sky News show, Hunt caused outrage when he answered a question about his stance on abortion by saying:
"My view hasn’t changed on that [reducing the abortion limit from 24 weeks to 12]. What I can guarantee is this will be a matter for the House of Commons, not a matter for government policy."
He has since been forced to clarify his remarks and explain that this is simply a "personal" view and that he would not try to lower the time limit on access to abortion were he to become prime minister.
However, you could argue that Jeremy Hunt’s views on abortion have already done some damage. When he was health secretary he had the power to grant women in Northern Ireland access to free abortions on the NHS. He didn’t. He said it was a matter for Northern Ireland’s assembly, Stormont (which has been suspended since January 2017).
The move happened, eventually, because of a campaign led by Labour’s Stella Creasy which resulted in Chancellor Philip Hammond agreeing to give the Equalities Office some money to fund abortions for women arriving in England from Northern Ireland.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Hunt’s views though, be they "personal" or political (aka designed to win votes from the more conservative members of his party who will decide whether he wins this race), is that they are totally out of step with what medical experts are saying. This is serious cause for concern.
Leading British experts, such as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Royal College of GPs all agree that it is high time to decriminalise abortion in the UK.
Very young women, who may be more likely to have hidden their pregnancy or taken time to confide in someone about their situation, should become mothers against their will...— bpas (@bpas1968) 9 June 2019
As things stand, a Victorian law known as the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act means that abortion is still technically a criminal act in this country, "except when there is a risk to the life or health of the mother". In practice, this might not restrict access in England, Scotland and Wales as it does in Northern Ireland, but it certainly reinforces outdated stigma about who should and shouldn’t be having an abortion.
More than this, women all over England are currently being subjected to anti-abortion protestors outside clinics. So far, the Home Office has refused to help by implementing nationwide buffer zones.
If that wasn’t enough, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has been calling for politicians to scrap the legal requirement for women to get the signatures of two doctors before they can have an early abortion since 2007. Yes, 2007. They said that this practice is "anachronistic" except in the most "complex cases".
As for the other candidates, here, in alphabetical order, is why some are better than others on abortion.
Michael Gove voted in favour of reducing abortion limits, making pre-abortion counselling a requirement and enforcing a waiting period back in 2006.
Mark Harper voted to reduce the abortion limit to 21 weeks, enforce a waiting period and require pre-abortion counselling back in 2006. And then, again, in 2008 he voted to reduce the limit to 12 weeks.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock approved the home use of misoprostol abortion pills at the end of 2018, which means women no longer have to travel home from clinics while, potentially, bleeding. This is something that Jeremy Hunt repeatedly refused to engage with campaigners and experts on.
Boris Johnson has always abstained from votes on abortion. This means we can’t know what he thinks because he either hasn’t showed up to the vote or, perhaps, doesn’t want his views on record.
Former foreign secretary, Boris Johnson has always abstained from votes on abortion. This means we can’t know what he thinks because he either hasn’t showed up to the vote or, perhaps, doesn’t want his views on record.
Andrea Leadsom has voted against the decriminalisation of abortion in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and in favour of lowering the limit on access to abortion whenever there has been an opportunity to do so.
International development secretary, Rory Stewart voted against putting pressure on the government to take responsibility for the human rights implications of Northern Ireland’s abortion laws.
It matters when people in power have conservative views on abortion because they set the agenda. We don’t need someone like Hunt, who merely promises not to make things worse; we need someone who actively wants to make them better.
As we’ve seen in America, having an anti-abortion leadership legitimises others who hold those views, giving them the confidence to act. So whoever becomes the next prime minister might not actively force a vote on the subject of abortion time limits but, if they had previously voted in favour of reducing the limit and openly advocated for it, their very presence could influence others.
Experts all agree that we need to reform, not restrict abortion and to make it easier to get for those who need it. A prime minister who doesn’t understand that will only hold us back, not just in Northern Ireland but all over the country.