Kushal Patel: MPs move to overturn archaic Victorian abortion law

kushal_patelMPs voted this week to introduce a bill to decriminalise abortion in England and Wales.

The Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) Bill, proposed by a cross-party body of MPs, seeks to repeal legislation that dates back to Victorian times. The bill in question aims to amend two sections of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which make abortion a criminal offence for both the woman and any assisting party, including doctors.

The criminal status of abortion in England and Wales today is still widely misconceived. The 1967 Abortion Act, which aimed to reduce soaring mortality rates associated with backstreet abortions, introduced specific circumstances in which an abortion could be legally performed, but did not in fact decriminalise the procedure.  This means that, even today, women who do not abide by these conditions—namely that abortion takes place within an upper gestation limit, currently 24 weeks, and has the approval of two doctors—could potentially face life imprisonment.

Critics of the law call it an archaic hangover from a punitive era when women did not yet have the right to vote and question why it still underpins women’s reproductive rights in modern society.

Diana Johnson MP, who has championed the vote, told MPs: “There is no other medical procedure in this country that is governed by legislation this old, this out of step with medical developments and public attitudes…Doctors are poorly served by a criminal framework which does not apply to other areas of medicine.” She went on to insist that decriminalising abortion will not make it any easier to get an abortion, due to long standing, robust regulation and the tight control of medication, nor will it alter the weight of such a decision in the minds of women.  Ms Johnson has questioned whether society should want to criminalise vulnerable women who reach for internet bought abortion pills and also warned of falling numbers of doctors working in this field.

One new and worrying culture in reproductive health is that of abortion medication being purchased online. 375 abortion pills were seized by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency in 2016, en route to addresses in England, Scotland, and Wales, up from just five in 2013. This could potentially highlight an increase in the number of women who forgo formal medical supervision and follow up of their termination, putting themselves at risk of heavy bleeding, clots, and infection. The bill would see women who self induce abortion no longer facing prosecution. Arguably, this would make the prospect of seeking professional advice (either before or after taking abortion pills) less daunting, mitigating at least some of the risk and much of the stigma.

However the bill, which passed with a backing of 172 vs. 142, has predictably been met with opposition. Anti-abortion critics have raised concerns over a potential increase in abortion rates, especially gender-selective and coerced abortions.  Right To Life, a secular pro-life charity, opposed the move, referencing poll results that show that only 2% of women wish the upper limit raised and 59% would in fact want it lowered, even though the bill does not mention raising the upper limit. Conservative MP Maria Caulfield implored MPs to “protect the rights of the unborn child” claiming the bill to be a response to a non-existent threat, “fuelling unethical and unsafe practices in many UK abortion clinics, and leaving women less safe and less informed.”

At a time when 40% of childbearing women worldwide live in nations where abortion is highly restricted or prohibited, and unsafe abortion claims 47,000 lives a year, leaving around five million women permanently injured, there is undoubtedly strong symbolic merit in joining nations who have decriminalised abortion—and whose progressive values and moral ethos England and Wales claim to share.  Abortion remains illegal in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, in the latter even in cases of rape and incest, abortion carries a 14 year sentence. Many Irish women still travel to England to undergo the procedure, 3,400 in 2015.

The new bill, backed by the Royal College of Midwives and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, will now progress on to a second reading on the 23 March before it may be passed into law later this month.

Kushal Patel, foundation doctor working at University College Hospital. F1 Representative for the North Central Thames Foundation School. 

Competing interests: None declared.