The 1861 Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA) criminalised abortion and threatened women with life imprisonment for ending a pregnancy. This cruel law is still in force today. The 1967 Abortion Act did not replace the OAPA or decriminalise abortion, but stipulated specific circumstances where women and their doctors would not be prosecuted. While often seen as a triumph of the women’s movement, the Act was in fact introduced in response to the huge public health problem of backstreet abortions. It placed decision-making on abortion firmly in the hands of the medical profession – not women. Now is the time to trust women. Here are 5 reasons why we should take abortion out of the criminal law and regulate it like other women’s healthcare procedures.
In 2016, a woman cannot choose for herself to have an abortion. Two doctors must decide whether she meets the criteria laid out in the 1967 Abortion Act. Women should be trusted to make their own decisions about their own pregnancies. To compel a woman to endure pregnancy and childbirth unless doctors give her legal authorisation to have an abortion is to deny her the right to control her own body, plan her own family and determine her own life course.
A woman who uses abortion medication at home, now widely available online, can be sent to prison for life. The UK has one of the harshest penalties for self-induced abortion of any other country in Europe – with the exception of Ireland. Other comparable countries do not imprison women for causing their own abortions – and even in Poland, where abortion is highly restricted – women cannot be prosecuted.
A doctor who provides safe abortion care to a woman who has requested it without the approval of a second doctor can be sent to prison. This threat of prosecution, unique to abortion, deters doctors from entering this field of women’s healthcare. On occasion therefore women are unable to find a doctor willing or able to help them.
Treatment can be delayed because doctors must comply with unnecessary laws that have no clinical benefit. Nurses and midwives who can provide highly skilled, complex care in other fields are excluded from offering straightforward abortion care to women who need it because the law permits only doctors to practice.
The fact that abortion remains within criminal law sits at odds with other well established legal principles that a person’s body is their own.
No-one can be compelled to undergo medical intervention against their will – including pregnant women whose fetus may die as a result. Life-saving organs cannot be taken from the dead body of someone who made clear they did not wish to donate, yet a living woman can be compelled to sustain a fetus against her will from the moment a fertilised egg implants in her womb.
Public opinion on abortion is now more liberal than the law, with two-thirds of people believing that abortion should be allowed according to a woman’s choice, compared to just over a third (37%) 30 years ago. There are around 200,000 abortions a year in the UK and one in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime. Sexual health policy supports the provision of abortion as a back-up to contraceptive failure, and 98% of abortions are funded by the NHS. Taking abortion out of the criminal law will not change the numbers of women having abortions, but regulating it in the same way as any other healthcare procedure would be far more suited to the beliefs and values of our society today.