Abortion is still a criminal offence in the UK, except under circumstances laid out in the Abortion Act 1967. Here’s why that needs to change.
Despite having a relatively socially liberal reputation – New Zealand’s current prime minister Jacinda Ardern has been widely praised for her move to introduce stricter gun control after a mass shooting in Christchurch earlier this year – it is still technically illegal to have an abortion in the country unless under certain circumstances.
Under the current law, women seeking an abortion must be under 20 weeks pregnant, claim that continuing with the pregnancy will damage their physical or mental health, receive counselling and have the procedure approved by two doctors before it goes ahead.
That means that, in practice, abortion is widely available. But it also means that women are forced to make claims about their mental and/or physical wellbeing in order to access reproductive healthcare. Pro-choice activists argue that abortion should be freely accessible, not only available in cases where a woman’s mental or physical health is in danger.
And it may surprise many readers to learn that these rules are applicable in most parts of the UK, too.
Many will no doubt be aware that Northern Ireland’s abortion laws are among some of the strictest in Europe. However, abortion is still illegal under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 throughout the UK, and is only permitted in certain circumstances thanks to the 1967 Abortion Act.
While abortion laws in the UK are slightly more lenient than those in New Zealand (in the UK, a woman can have an abortion up to 24 weeks of pregnancy), a woman seeking a termination must prove that continuing with the pregnancy would involve risk of injury to her physical or mental health. She also still requires two doctors to approve the procedure.
It is also worth noting that, while abortions are widely available in the UK, a number of barriers to abortion – such as stigma, protests outside clinics and a lack of providers – still exist. And that’s what makes decriminalising abortion so important.
The decriminalisation of abortion, which is supported by UK health organisations including the BMA and Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, would do more than just remove a symbolic barrier – it could change attitudes and improve access to treatment.
According to Doctors for Choice UK, decriminalising abortion would help to improve quality of care by avoiding the uneccessary delays caused by needing the signature of two doctors, and would also help to reduce the stigma around the treatment; as long as abortion remains illegal, the law is sending a message of strong social disapproval.
There’s also the problem of access – women who seek out abortion pills and carry out the procedure at home are currently risking imprisonment – but it’s not always possible for women to get to a clinic.
“While it is true to say that abortion care is relatively accessible in Great Britain, for some women there remain insurmountable barriers to accessing legal treatment within a clinic,” explained Katharine O’Brien, Associate Director of Communications and Campaigns at BPAS (the British Pregnancy Advistory Service).
“Data released by one online abortion pills provider, Women on Web, shows that on average two women a day from England, Wales, and Scotland contact this one organisation to request abortion pills because they cannot get to a clinic for treatment.These women include those in coercive and violent relationships, who cannot risk attending a clinic in case their partner finds out they are pregnant, women with caring for children with serious medical conditions, and those with severe morning sickness who are quite literally confined to their home.
“Under our current criminal law, any of these women who use online abortion pills to end a pregnancy risk up to life imprisonment,” she added.
While many people remain unaware that abortion remains illegal in the UK, it’s clear that the criminalisation of the procedure is creating unnecessary barriers to treatment. With abortion rights across the world being held up for debate it’s time that UK politicians take notice of the steps being taken in New Zealand to ensure women can access the treatment they need now and in the future.