Jeremy Hunt's position on abortion isn't simply ‘personal’ – it’s a blatant political attempt to win votes

Harriet Hall

Victoria Derbyshire became the latest in a long line of news presenters and correspondents this week who have become swearily tongue-tied over Conservative MP Jeremy Hunt’s name. A cynic would suggest not all of these are complete mistakes, a feminist, like myself, might say it speaks to a wider truth.

The Tory leadership front-runner raised eyebrows when he announced during an interview with Sky that he believed abortion limit should be halved, from the current 24 weeks, down to 12. He called such stances on abortion as “matters of conscience”.

Hunt has made his view public before, but chose his words carefully, especially around how the issue might come up for a vote. Key supporter Amber Rudd told Radio 4 that these were merely his “personal views” and that he had guaranteed to her that he would not be challenging the abortion limit should he become PM. “That is good enough for me,” she said, “because I know parliament will not be changing abortion law unless somebody moves to do that”.

Minister for Women and Equalities Penny Mordaunt also continued to back Hunt.

The news cycle being as it is, Michael Gove’s past penchant for snorting cocaine quickly stole the headlines, but we should be far more concerned about Hunt’s abortion stance – especially in the wake of the assault on reproductive rights taking place across the US.

Unsurprisingly – as is often the case with men who try to have their say on women’s bodily autonomy – Hunt’s suggestion pays no heed to the actual biology of pregnancy. The majority of abortions (90 per cent) take place before the 13 week mark. Women who are unable to look after a child or are the victims of assault are quick to act. This is also because the 12-week scan is the first time women know if their pregnancy is viable. According to Hunt’s timeline, women would have to carry to term even if their foetus stands little chance of surviving.

Hunt’s comments offer no “conscience” for women. With pregnancy measured from the date of a woman’s last period, some might not know they are pregnant if they are taking certain types of menstruation-suppressant contraception.

His beliefs don’t consider women whose circumstances change due to income loss, home loss, partner loss, domestic violence, and are unable to look after a child. All this, while male contraceptive pills remain a distant dream. The onus is entirely on women and men face no consequences.

How about instead, men who impregnate women who don’t want children face punishment? Should men whose sperm is linked to an unviable foetus have vasectomies? It seems a much more reasonable method of curtailing unwanted pregnancies – if that’s the direction things are going in.

This week, hit HBO show The Handmaid's Tale returned for a third series. Adapted from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel of the same name, the drama imagines a not too distant future in the US which has been renamed Gilead. Fertile women are turned into reproductive vessels, forced into a life of surrogacy.

In Gilead, funerals take place for miscarriages and doctors are hanged for performing abortions. Is this so different from what is happening in the US right now, as over a dozen states have introduced so-called heartbeat bills? Kylie Jenner might find this setting fitting – and the Handmaid’s capes cute enough – for a Gilead-themed party, but the nightmare is almost a reality for women in the US and UK right now.

Under Theresa May, the Tories did nothing to relax anti-abortion laws right on our doorstep in Northern Ireland. Atwood herself has always said the book was based on real-life events that have actually happened at some point in time – and who’s to say they won’t happen again.

Rudd’s absurd “personal opinion” line was a sorry attempt to suggest that the personal is not political – that the personal isn't exactly what drives people into politics in the first place. How can anyone claim that personal politics are not important for someone who wants to run the country?

Efforts by the right to strip back women’s civil liberties run deep through the Conservative Party – no longer just on the back bench. Not only have Rudd and Mordaunt turned a blind eye to these comments, but Jacob Rees-Mogg is against all abortion even in the event of rape, and Tory leadership candidate Andrea Leadsom has voted time and again to reduce the abortion time limit and prevented abortion rights being extended to Northern Ireland.

It should also be noted that Hunt too, was apathetic about improving Northern Irish women’s chances to access free abortions in England. And he used his vote to challenge abortion in 2008, attempting to halve the time limit then, too.

Most of the 10 Tory leadership candidates claim to be feminists – Hunt included – but this is not the face of feminism, this is the face of extreme conservatism that threatens women’s reproductive autonomy.

We need a PM who will put women’s rights front and centre, not use them as a virtue-signalling campaign slogan or wear them because it looks good on a T-Shirt. Hunt might claim that he doesn’t plan to roll back abortion rights, but his comments were a direct message to a cohort of voters on a hot-button topic he knew he’d be asked about.

While leadership contenders harp on about Brexit (a no-deal of which would be terrible for women), we should really be ensuring that we do not allow a man like Hunt to run our country. If we do? Well, we’re telling women that they do not matter.