In the Guardian’s Saturday interview, Aida Edemariam puts the following question to Maria Miller, who has both spoken and voted in favour of reducing the abortion time limit to 20 weeks:
Let’s say that a woman goes for a routine anomalies scan at 20 weeks. And let’s say, because of timing, or because maternity units are often so oversubscribed, this turns into 21 weeks. And at that point this woman discovers that the foetus she’s carrying has a terrible anomaly and will either die in the womb or have a terrible quality of life, for both baby and mother – what would you say to her?
I think it’s a good question. I’d probably ask it, too. Except I wouldn’t because I’m not a journalist, hence I’m not trained in asking politicians the right questions, those questions which are relevant and pointed and put them on the spot. It’s only people such as Edemariam who are able to do this. This may be why Miller notes that “the only people who ever ask me about this issue are journalists”. Too bloody right, Maria. The rest of us, well, we’d only fluff our lines. That’s if we got to interview you at all, which we won’t. It’s not our job. This doesn’t mean you don’t owe us answers all the same.
Clearly Miller does not wish to be drawn into discussing an issue where voting does not take place on party lines (unless she happens to be talking to the Telegraph). Her response to Edemariam seems hostile and slippery:
Her anger is palpable. A red flush rises up her chest and toward her neck, and her mouth is set. “It’s really important that the government does not campaign on abortion, and I think it’s running the risk of giving the impression that that’s what we’re doing by continuing to ask me questions about it.” But we are asking about it because even votes of private conscience, when they are by the minister for women, are a legitimate matter for scrutiny. “It’s ONLY journalists asking me about it – it is not me trying to put forward a view.” And that is that.
To be honest, I don’t know about the “red flush” and the “set” mouth. I get the impression that the reporter is laying it on a bit thick due to not getting the answer she wants, but then again, that’s probably what all journalists do (or don’t do. I wouldn’t know). All the same, I still can’t make sense of Miller’s response. Does she think that journalists are the only ones who care about this particular issue? (In which case, why not say whatever it is she really thinks?) Or is the implication that it’s a minority issue – one which doesn’t concern most people, just that woman who needs that later abortion? In which case, one has to assume it is no longer the role of an equalities minister to respond to the needs of those on the margins. Creating an equal society – which might once have involved listening to those groups most likely to experience inequality – now appears to be a process of allowing dominant groups to define and ringfence what constitutes equality itself.
Miller’s excuse that “the government does not campaign on abortion” seems to me a tremendous cop-out. If Miller truly wishes not to “put forward a view” then she should not comment on the issue at all. If you vote for a reduction in abortion limits – if you tell particular news outlets but not others that you want the limit to be reduced – then you are actually doing far more than putting forward a view. Your political positioning and voting record can affect people’s lives. Refusing to justify not just your thoughts but your actions is deeply unfair on all of us who are not currently trusted to make decisions based on what our own consciences dictate.
I find it remarkable that Miller can be outraged merely at being asked to explain herself. It is such a small request. What she herself demands of a very small group of women – whose personal circumstances do not interest her – is so much more. But then, most of those women who are having abortions at 21 weeks aren’t journalists and don’t tend to find themselves interviewing Maria Miller. They might find themselves reading the interviews and waiting for the answers that never come. But unless you’re truly visible to an equalities minister – that is, sitting right in front of her – it appears she can’t see you at all.