You may not have known that getting an abortion is still classed as a criminal offence in England and Wales and carries a life sentence, but the 50-year-old Abortion Act did not actually decriminalise it, only provide exemptions to the law.
However after a two-hour debate at its annual meeting on Tuesday (27 June), medics from the British Medical Association (BMA) voted to decriminalise abortion, arguing that the decision should be a medical one, not a legal one. This means the professional body will now officially back decriminalisation and lobby for a change in the law. The 500 delegates voted 2:1 in favour.
Dr Coral Jones, who presented the motion, said: “We must respect women and have trust in women to make decisions for themselves and their families.”
Decriminalisation would mean women and medical staff would not face criminal charges for an abortion in any circumstances, at any stage in a pregnancy, though would still be subject to regulation as any other medical procedure is.
Medical and surgical abortions carry little risk and are usually simple procedures.
Currently, terminations can be carried out up to 24 weeks of pregnancy, but can happen later in cases where there is a risk to the woman’s life or the baby would have severe disabilities.
However, two doctors must sign off that the case meets the criteria laid out by the 1967 act. The criteria states that the doctors must agree that the pregnancy would risk “injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman”, that it would risk the woman’s life or that the child would be “seriously handicapped”.
Women who procure an abortion outside these limits can face life in prison, while doctors who provide them can be jailed for five years.
Despite some roaring about late-term abortions ‘on demand’, Dr John Chisholm – chairman of the BMA's medical ethics committee – said the motion was not intended to be about raising time limits.
“Abortion is currently a crime, with exceptions, throughout the UK. Following the debate the majority of doctors were clear that abortion should be treated as a medical issue rather than a criminal one,” he said.
“What must be clear is that decriminalisation does not mean deregulation. The debate today and the BMA’s new policy only relate to whether abortion should or should not be a criminal offence; the policy does not address the broader issue of when and how abortion should be available.”
The news follows the Royal College of Midwives launching a campaign last year calling for abortion to be decriminalised.
Organisations against abortion were quick to claim that keeping the procedure illegal is a form of “supporting women” and described the results of the vote as endorsing “an autonomy agenda” and “an extremist agenda in line with the abortion industry’s laissez faire up-to-birth attitude to ending the lives of unborn children.”
During the debate, some opposing the motion said they believed decriminalisation could put women in abusive relationships at risk of coercion, encourage sex-selective terminations and be comparable to procuring facial filler injections.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) reiterated the BMA’s stance that all procedures will still be regulated and carried out safely: “Decriminalisation does not mean deregulation, or that abortions could be legally performed on women by unqualified individuals: it would simply mean that abortion could be governed in the same robust way as all other clinical procedures are in the UK today, and that doctors could provide woman-centred care according to the highest clinical standards, rather than legislation that is now 50 years old.
“It would also ensure that any woman who uses abortion medication without the authorisation of two doctors would no longer face the threat of life in prison, as is the case today.”
Speaking in March, ahead of MPs voting to decriminalise abortion in England and Wales (a bill which fell by the wayside due to the snap election), Labour MP Diana Johnson told the House of Commons: “There is no other medical procedure in this country 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.”
Amnesty International responded to yesterday’s vote by pointing out the draconian laws still in place in Northern Ireland, saying: “Women who need abortions are not criminals, the law should not treat them as such. We are calling on the UK Government to commit, particularly in the absence of functioning devolution, to prioritise bringing Northern Ireland’s abortion laws in line with international human rights standards. This must include the decriminalisation of abortion.”
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