On Saturday July 4th, the day before the 72nd anniversary of the founding of the NHS – we demonstrated, jointly with Manchester Trade Union Council, with Unison, Unite and any other unions involved, with Keep Our NHS Public and with Health Campaigns Together (with PPE and social distancing) against the privatisation of the Department of Reproductive Medicine at St Mary’s Hospital Manchester.

NEXT EVENT

VIRTUAL PUBLIC MEETING: No privatisation of Manchester’s fertility service!
Monday, 20 July 2020 from 19:00-20:30

Details at the end of this article

Women in the Labour Movement have been campaigning for at least 100 years on issues of maternal health and the right to choose whether and when to have children, and to use any technological advances that might make those choices easier, or even possible. From 1924 onwards the Women’s Labour League annually and unanimously supported birth control. The men in the Labour and Trade Union Movement were not always so unanimous, or so interested in the subject.

In 1924 the first Labour Government was elected, and the League bombarded John Wheatley – the first Labour Minister of Health – with demands for improved health care in childbirth and after, and for the provision of free, state birth control clinics. They organised meetings and major demonstrations. They kept reminding him that giving birth had four times the death rate of working in the mines, the most dangerous job for men, and twenty times the likelihood of permanent disability.

However, it was not until 1974 – another 50 years later – that women achieved the right to free contraception on the NHS, irrespective of age or marital status, by which time I had joined the Labour Party and it was one of the issues I was campaigning for myself, first through the Young Socialists and then the Labour Women’s organisation . Nowadays, men can also get free vasectomies  and, whether for contraception or protection against HIV, free condoms on the NHS, also irrespective of age. None of these successes, in areas where some people like to make moral rather than medical judgements, was easy or straightforward.

For example, even after the beginning of the decriminalisation of homosexuality for men in 1967, homophobia was still rampant for many years. Thus, more than 20 years later in 1988, Thatcher was able to introduce Clause 28. Roy Trevelion (London SHA member) in Age UK’s Opening Doors London, likens the mental health of many HIV positive men – as a consequence of the AIDS epidemic and ongoing homophobia – to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Most gay men who obtained free condoms would have been more likely to get them from organisations like the Lesbian and Gay Foundation in Manchester (and similar ones elsewhere), which is registered as a charity and raised money to provide them on that basis. Many gay men would have been more able and less anxious to get their condoms from peer-support charities like this than to risk accidentally outing themselves at the doctor’s or clinic.

The post World War II economic boom brought rising employment of women and improved living standards, and with increased confidence, women demanded recognition for their contribution to society and the right to control their own lives. These led to the Abortion Act 1967 as well as to Equal Pay (1970) and Sex Discrimination (1975) legislation, and the right to paid maternity leave (1975). The Abortion Act did not give women the right to choose, but made it legal for abortions to be carried out with the approval of two doctors under certain circumstances. In effect it decriminalised what women had been doing for centuries, just as the 1967 Sexual Offences Act (partially) decriminalised homosexual acts between men.

Making abortion illegal in 1861 had not stopped it, and the 1967 Act did not encourage it: it just made the difference between a woman dying as a consequence, or surviving. (In Romania, abortion was illegal until 1989: but abortions still outnumbered live births – in 1987 by four to one.) I remember providing accommodation to Spanish women coming to the UK for abortions before 1985, when it became legal in Spain, and from the Republic of Ireland before the end of 2018 when it was legalised there.

However, the 1967 Abortion Act, like the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, was not the end of the matter. There were several attempts to repeal or considerably amend the Abortion Act, such as the White Bill, the Corrie Bill and the Alton Bill, which gave rise in turn to their own protest movements. A very large demonstration against the Corrie Bill was called by the TUC (on the initiative of the Women’s TUC) in 1980, the first time in the world that a major trade union federation had called a demonstration on abortion rights; and another against the Alton Bill in 1988, again with the support of the trade union movement. None of these Private Member’s Bills was successful, but in the end the period during which abortion could be legally carried out was reduced to 24 weeks in 1990, by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, based on the recommendations of the Committee of the same name, chaired by Mary Warnock, was passed in 1990. When it was originally passed it allowed access to infertility treatment, such as Artificial Insemination or In Vitro Fertilisation, at a cost (in money and patience, especially with IVF) but it also required the women who wanted medical assistance to become mothers, to conform to a very traditional view of motherhood and the family, as reflected in the attitudes of doctors, hospital ethical committees and the Warnock Committee at that time, and laid down in Codes of Practice. These were not medical decisions but social and moral ones.

For example, to be “suitable” for treatment, a woman had to be living in a stable relationship with a man, and usually had to be able-bodied. Some clinics were reluctant to treat couples where the man was not in work, or the woman not prepared to give up work. Single women and lesbian couples were not usually eligible.  Tory MP David Wilshire made it clear in his speech that he was particularly concerned that “assisted conception” would not produce families dependent on the state, and another amendment was passed to include “the need of a child for a father”.

Why is Reproductive Technology a Political Issue?

Thirty years ago I wrote those words in a book called “Whose Choice?”, published at the time of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill which became law in 1990. The question was why the Labour Movement should take up issues such as contraception, abortion and treatment of infertility, which were often seen as purely personal matters.

My answer, on behalf of the (then) Manchester and Liverpool Labour Women’s Councils, was that it was our belief that decisions about whether or not to have children, how many to have, whether or not to have an abortion or use any of the technologies available to overcome or by-pass infertility, or to avoid having a child with disabilities, or to enable those of us who were lesbians to become parents, were all personal decisions to be taken by the individuals concerned, and not by the Church, the State or the Medical Profession.

And since it is women who give birth to children and even now usually bear the main responsibility for child rearing, these decisions must primarily be theirs. As socialists we argue for women to have the maximum choice possible in the decisions that shape their lives.

The campaign then – and still is now – was not just for legal rights, but for the practical means to realise them. In order for a working class woman to have the choices already available to richer women, she must have the economic means (a living wage or income), and necessary social arrangements, such as childcare and decent housing, so that she can choose to have a child. It means expanding the NHS, taking back control of the services that have been contracted out to the private sector, resisting any further attempts to privatise parts of the NHS, and running the NHS democratically so that women can have access to free and safe abortion, contraception, artificial insemination and IVF treatment.

It means carrying out the research to find contraceptives that meet the needs identified by both women and men; research to enable women to have earlier abortions and make them safer; research into causes of infertility and its prevention; research into chromosomal and genetic disorders and their prevention; and research into products and services that would improve the lives of disabled people.

All these things are entirely reasonable and technically possible; but they raise, in turn, important – essentially political – questions. Who does the research and in whose interests? The rubber goods manufacturers (for decades before the 1960s, clandestine or even illegal): the vulcanisation of rubber revolutionised birth control as well as road transport; but  nowadays research is dominated by the pharmaceutical industry. And of course the research is done to make a profit.

The drug industry is one of the most research-intensive sectors: but it spends more on marketing and advertising than on research. That was the case when the last official UK Government report on the industry was published (The Sainsbury Report, HMSO, 1967) and it was even more the case, according to the most recent figures (OECD Main Science and Technology Indicators, annual, covering all OECD member countries in the year of publication.)

Pressure to be first to market can lead to corner-cutting in testing: the most notorious case where this happened was Thalidomide, a tranquilliser that had been declared safe, and was explicitly prescribed, for pregnant women. But it caused major deformities in their babies who were, most notably, born either without some or all of their limbs or with major deformities in them.

Although it was known by then that some drugs could cause foetal damage, it was not yet specifically a legal requirement to test for them, and the tests were not done. (Only the USA’s Food and Drug Adminstration refused to grant a licence for thalidomide to be prescribed, because the FDA official responsible insisted on having evidence on the foetal effects of the drug, which were not available.) Criticism of government “interference” in the affairs of business is very common in the United States (often framed as interference in the public’s right to choose – except women’s right to choose abortion). Today the FDA is still the butt of criticism of lack of freedom from government interference.

The Warnock Report, on which the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill was based, commented on the lack of research into causes of infertility. This is still the case to some extent, though knowledge in this area has been increasing since the discussions around the Warnock Report and the debates on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.

But we can be sure that thorough studies, once publicised and popularised, will lead to increased demands for improved health and safety at work; and for the replacement of industrial processes, chemicals and other materials causing infertility; and that responding to these demands would threaten profits. A thorough study would also raise questions about the under-funding of the NHS and the number of diseases that are not adequately diagnosed, or possibly not adequately treated, and which lead to infertility.

The issue of women’s rights in reproduction is therefore a political and class question: not just because it is mainly working class women and men who are affected by lack of choice and unsafe working conditions, but also because the ability of all women to have a real choice will only be possible as a result of the struggle of working class women and men to change society. This means campaigning on reproductive rights as well as on better housing, higher wages and defence of the NHS. It especially means we must control the resources of society and organise them for need rather than profit.

St Mary’s Department of Reproductive Medicine (DRM) – Summary of Background Briefing

St Saint Mary’s Hospital, Manchester, was founded in 1790. Today it provides a wide range of medical services, mainly for women, babies and children. It is highly regarded for teaching and research, and has an internationally recognised Genomics Centre and Department of Reproductive Medicine (DRM). The DRM employs 70 staff and delivers clinical, laboratory and counselling services for about 3000 patients a year. Most of St Mary’s services and research activity is carried out in a building dating from the late 1960s. In 2009 paediatric services were transferred to the newly built Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital on the same site.

The issue at the centre of the protest is that the DRM is housed in the Old St Mary’s Building (also on the same site) which dates from just after the death of Queen Victoria, and is in desperate need of repair. Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust (MFT) believes that relocation of DRM within the Trust could cost up to £10 million just in capital expenditure, and is talking about privatisation.

DRM offers a fertility assessment and infertility service. Artificial Insemination and IVF are offered to women who may benefit, on referral by a GP. This can be both NHS funded and private – the latter for women for whom it is clinically appropriate but whose CCG would not fund the necessary cycles of treatment. It offers a fertility preservation service for patients who wish to preserve eggs or sperm while having medical treatment – eg for cancer – that might affect future fertility. DRM offers sperm-testing and specialist treatment for patients whose sperm has been identified as presenting fertility issues; and on the other hand post-vasectomy checks.

An anonymous or by-arrangement sperm-donation service is also offered to lesbians, and to heterosexual women either without a partner or who cannot conceive with their partner’s sperm for any reason. The Department also offers a reproductive endocrinology service which focuses on the way in which hormones affect fertility; and specialist counselling to any of the patients using their services. DRM runs the national proficiency scheme involving distribution to other reproductive medicine labs across the country and checks that the results are consistent. Finally, the Department makes a significant contribution to fertility research in conjunction with the University of Manchester.

In early March the Trust briefed all service staff that they would undertake a 12 month options appraisal exercise to identify whether the service should remain within the Trust or be re-commissioned elsewhere. (Since the pandemic this has been put back.) The unions argue:

  • that there would be significant capital costs involved in privatising the service, which would have to be borne by the hospital (eg to store embryos – the store would need to remain on the site and continue to be run, inspected and managed by MFT, because the cost of doing otherwise would be prohibitive).
  • that the service is unique in Greater Manchester, and to a large extent in the entire North West Region.
  • It has significant associated capital and operational costs so other NHS trusts are likely to be reluctant to bid to host the service.
  • The private sector may offer an option that appears to be cheaper, but offers a far lower level of service than that currently provided at St Mary’s – but the NHS might be obliged to accept the private bid, because it is lower.

The unions are also concerned about the impact of any potential future privatisation of the service for many reasons, including:

  • St Mary’s offers specialist care to a number of people with Protected Characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, which might not be available under private sector provision.
  • The services offered by St Mary’s are highly specialised – Trafford CCG ring-fenced them on behalf of all the CCGs in Greater Manchester, not requiring them to participate in an IVF procurement exercise in 2019 for this reason.
  • The andrology service works with eg men with Cystic Fibrosis who are often infertile and need surgery if they wish to have a chance of creating a family, and another specialist service involving the only UK-based partnership with the long established FAIRFAX cryo-spermbank.
  • The National External Quality Assessment Scheme for reproductive medicine is currently based in the DRM laboratories. If DRM was closed or moved, this would need a new home, too.
  • The kind of research investment and relationship with academic institutions that St Mary’s has would not be replicated in private sector provision where profits have to be made.
  • Despite assurances from MFT, the unions believe that the terms and conditions of the staff in the private sector, if they had to move and could do so, would not be as good as those in the NHS under the Agenda for Change national pay system.
  • In other areas where NHS services have been privatised, there has often been an erosion of terms and conditions, and of collective bargaining, either through attrition over time or an aggressive stance by employers. Unions believe that this is a significant risk.
  • The cost to fee-paying patients is less than the alternative provision in the private sector, and for NHS patients, the NHS pays via CCGs around £4000 per IVF cycle at St Mary’s, but significantly more (£5-6,000) to private providers per cycle.
  • The DRM is part of St Mary’s and both are located on the MFT Oxford Road Campus next to the University of Manchester. Patients with co-morbidities and other conditions which may have an impact on their fertility and associated treatments, can benefit from the expertise and clinical care available within MFT close to their fertility treatment. At the same time, staff can benefit from the close proximity of other specialisms which may be relevant to a patient’s ongoing care.

The Next Stage in the Campaign to Save St Mary’s

There will be a public meeting (via internet) hosted by Keep Our NHS Public as below. Please join us via Greater Manchester Keep Our NHS Public (GM KONP)’s Facebook page.

PUBLIC MEETING: No privatisation of Manchester’s fertility service!
Monday, 20 July 2020 from 19:00-20:30

https://www.facebook.com/events/280845443022548/

The fertility service provided by the Department of Reproductive Medicine at St Mary’s hospital, Manchester, faces privatisation. According to reports, Manchester Foundation Trust announced earlier this year that the service would go over to a private company in 2021. This would be a disaster for the service and future patients.

Now the Trust has begun an “options appraisal” over the future of the service. We insist that the #1 option must be keeping it public and keeping it where it is. We demand a public consultation so the people of Manchester have their say.

Join our online public meeting to hear about the situation and how we can campaign to win. There will be discussion after the speakers, who are:

Denise Andrews, Unison union rep, DRM
Liz Holland, Unite the Union branch secretary, MFT
James Bull, Unison union regional officer

Pia Feig, a feminist perspective
Chaired by Caroline Bedale, Greater Manchester Keep Our NHS Public and Greater Manchester Socialist Health Association.

This will be a Facebook Live event broadcast through the event page.

Mailing address for

Keep Our NHS Public Greater Manchester

c/o KONP national, Unit 12-13 Springfield House 5 Tyssen Street

LondonE8 2LY

United Kingdom

Vivien Walsh (Greater Manchester SHA)

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