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Abortion: Time to decriminalise?

Under the back-drop of Mr Trump’s anti-abortion rhetoric and global onslaught on women’s reproductive rights, UK must reform it’s paternalistic and outdated abortion laws.

It may come as a surprise, that in modern day Britain abortion is still criminal act, punishable by life imprisonment. Under current english law, if a women brought abortion pills online and miscarried at home she is committing a criminal act and could be imprisoned. Under the 1967 abortion act, a women is exempt from prosecution if the procedure is carried out in a licensed premises under specific conditions; two doctors have to agree the pregnancy is greater risk than the abortion to the life or health of the mother, and she is under 24 week gestation. Many argue this law is paternalistic, out of date and not fit for purpose.

In March this year, Diane Johnson MP introduced 10 minute rule bill to decriminalise abortion, scrapping sections 58 and 59 of the Victorian Offences Against the Person Act 1861. This was supported by the Royal College of Midwives, BPAS and the British Medical Association. Dr Clare Gerada, former chair of the Royal College of GPs said:

“Abortion is never an easy thing to do for any woman. But for abortion to be governed by criminal law rather than governed by healthcare regulation is nonsense”.

Opponents to decriminalisation argue it will remove safeguards needed to ensure the women’s safety. This is a false argument. Decriminalisation does not mean deregulation. Providers will continue to be regulated by the General Medical Council’s standards of good medical practice, including consent and confidentiality, like all other medical procedures. Other laws which apply to other aspects of care would continue to apply to abortion, for instance supplying abortion drugs without prescription would be an offence under the UK-wide Human Medicines Regulation 2012.

Others argue, that under current law women have access to abortion so there is no need for reform. However, abortion providers report that with 2 doctor requirement dictated by the law, it has become increasingly difficult to staff services and has led to clinic closures, making access more difficult and reducing options for women. Dr Draeger, a consultant in Lewisham, said that the current requirement for two doctors had forced the closure of the early medical abortion service, where she had worked,

“Because of the way the law says that two people have to consent to a woman having an abortion, our service folded after a year because we didn’t have enough doctors. That means that the women in my borough, which is one of the most deprived in the country, have less access to termination”.

There are also fears that liberating abortion laws will lead to an increase in abortion rates. This is contrary to the evidence. Data from the World Health Organisation show that restrictive abortion laws do not reduce abortion rates; rather, the reduced access to contraception and safe abortion services leads to increased numbers of unintended pregnancies and, ultimately, more morbidity and deaths deaths from unsafe abortions.

In Northern Ireland, which did not pass the 1967 act, there are many stories of desperate women, who cannot afford to travel to England, buying unregulated pills online, or drinking bleach, with no support and in fear of prosecution. Last year a 21-year-old woman was given a suspended sentence after she pleaded guilty to procuring her own abortion by using a poison, and of supplying a poison with intent to procure a miscarriage, two offences under the 1867 legislation.

Globally the picture is bleak. The president of the United states, raised eye brows during his election campaign with his regressive statements; ‘women should be punished’ if they have an abortion was one of many. Since being elected, he has not failed to live up to his controversial rhetoric. He has pulled federal funding for Planned Parenthood; a charity that provides free or subsidised family planning services to people on low incomes. As federal funding contributes to 40% of the charity’s income, such a move would undoubtedly result in restrictions to the services it can provide and clinic closures, denying those in most need access contraception.

Sadly, the policies of this new administration has ramifications across the developing world. On his first day in office, Trump reinstated and expanded the “global gag” rule. This means that any foreign health agency that advises, performs, or advocates for abortions will lose their US funding (even if the abortions are not being directly financed by US government money). Marie Stopes, an international provider of reproductive health services, estimates that without alternative funding, the impact of this law on their services could result in 2.1 million unsafe abortions and over 20 000 maternal deaths during Trump’s first term as president.

Free, accessible, safe and legal abortion is a human right. Decriminalisation will bring UK in line with Canada and other European countries. It will also send a strong message, when globally women’s reproductive rights are under grave threat, that in Britain; we respect women, her autonomy over her body and future, and her right to choose.


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