Our Abortion Act is 50 this week and it deserves a celebration with party poppers, chocolate fountains and uterus-shaped balloons. Since 1967 this hard-won piece of law has enabled millions of women to make decisions about their bodies that have changed their lives and futures. One in three of us will now access safe, legal abortion in England, Scotland or Wales and 95 per cent don’t regret it. We are no longer part of the 13 per cent maternal deaths that still happen worldwide as a result of backstreet abortion. Our act has given us safety, power and equality. Just maybe not enough.
Like all good birthdays, this one is bittersweet. I love the Abortion Act for what it is and all it has done, but it is ageing fast. It is easy to forget that abortion is still illegal in this country. The law sets out how you and I (and anyone who helps us) could be prosecuted and imprisoned if we have an abortion outside of the strict constraints of the Act. And strict they are. You need two doctors to sign off on your abortion and they need to believe that continuing your pregnancy would be of greater detriment to your physical and mental health than having an abortion. The power that has been given to women is only a sliver of what is available – the biggest helping still sits outside our grasp.
The Act’s dusty clauses make life unnecessarily difficult for women who are feeling vulnerable and are about to experience pain and discomfort. Created at a time when abortion was always a more complex surgical procedure, the constraints it now places on women and medical professionals are wildly out-of-step with the reality of medical abortion today. In many other European countries women can purchase or be prescribed the safe, legal abortion pill and – choosing a convenient time and comfortable place – end their pregnancy with privacy and dignity.
Here, women face at least two appointments at clinics (which can be an hour or more's travel away – far longer if they are making the trek from Northern Ireland), absences from work, travel costs and time, explanations to others and, as they must take the medication in front of a practitioner, a frantic dash home before symptoms such as violent vomiting or cramping start. Research has shown that this is having an impact on safety and choice. Some women are ending their pregnancies outside of the system (by purchasing pills online, for example) saying that logistics, comfort or a controlling or abusive relationship made it impossible for them to access legal services. It doesn’t have to be like this.
Some women are ending their pregnancies outside of the system saying that logistics, comfort or a controlling or abusive relationship made it impossible for them to access legal services
As Katherine O’Brien, Head of Media and Policy Research at BPAS explains, “Our abortion law is completely out-of-step with both best medical practice and the values of our society. Polling has repeatedly demonstrated that we are a pro-choice country. We believe that women should be trusted to make decisions about their own bodies and their own lives, and we do not believe that women who end a pregnancy outside the terms of the Act – for example, a victim of domestic violence who buys abortion medication online because they are unable to leave their home – should face up to life imprisonment.”
The time to decriminalise abortion is now. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the British Medical Association are now calling for abortion to be treated as a properly regulated medical procedure and not a crime. Lord Steel, one of the original architects of the Act, has joined those calling for a full decriminalisation of the simple procedure.
The spotlight is shining brightly on abortion rights. On Monday Equalities Minister Justine Greening announced details of the government's plans to fund the abortions of Northern Irish women forced to travel to England. Meanwhile The Republic of Ireland awaits a 2018 referendum on its eighth amendment, which currently prohibits abortion in almost all circumstances. This week, the Supreme Court is hearing a landmark case (in which BPAS, Birthrights and a group of women’s rights charities have intervened) that seeks to establish that inhumane Northern Irish abortion restrictions are incompatible with human rights law, failing, as they do, to allow abortion in cases of serious foetal abnormality or if the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest. I cross my fingers and my heart for a judgment that advances the rights of Northern Irish women and a referendum result that begins to bring Irish women the same power and choices that many of us take for granted.
And as the UK’s eyes turn to abortion law over the next 12 months we cannot allow the Abortion Act’s birthday to go unmarked. While championing it, and those who fought for it, we must acknowledge the mid-life crisis it is having and ensure that 2018 is the year that women are trusted to decide what is best for them. Decriminalisation: we deserve nothing less.