“50 years of the Abortion Act is a cause for celebration, but we’ve a long way to go”

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Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett
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Ask A Feminist is our regular column tackling issues on feminism, sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st-century context. This week, Stylist contributor Rhannon Lucy Cosslett reflects on 50 years since the Abortion Act. 

With one in three women in the UK choosing to have an abortion, it is highly likely that you know at least one woman who has terminated a pregnancy.

Today marks 50 years since the Abortion Act 1967, brought as a private members bill by Lord Steel, gave women in mainland UK access to a safe and legal abortion before 24 weeks (it was 28 weeks prior to a law change in 1990). It is only fit and proper that we celebrate this, but we must also continue to defend our freedoms and acknowledge that there remains much work to be done.

We have much to thank the act for, not least for our lives. Before it was passed, women opted for dangerous backstreet abortions, or tried to terminate their own pregnancies through various dubious methods such as using coat hangers, drinking gin in a scalding hot bath, throwing oneself down the stairs, using curling tongs, or drinking turpentine. At the time the act was being debated, 50 women a year were dying from “septic and incomplete abortions”. Worldwide, 22 million women still undergo unsafe abortions, with 47,000 dying as a result.

Wroclaw, Poland, October 3, 2016 - protest against anti-abortion law forced by Polish government PIS, black protest - 'czarny protest' on 03,10,2016 in Wroclaw, Poland
Protest against anti-abortion law, Warsaw, Poland, October 3, 2016

This is why the activist Margaret Sanger’s quote that “No woman can call herself free who does not control her own body” resonates so deeply. The Abortion Act gifted women with the freedom to make decisions about their own bodies and lives, and it did much to destigmatise and demystify abortion – women are now able to speak about the procedure in ways unimaginable when the act was conceived. But despite the progress that the 1967 act represents, women have still been forced defend their reproductive rights. There have been repeated calls to reduce the time limit for abortion and to restrict the act in myriad ways.

In 2011, the Conservative MP Nadine Dorries attempted to strip abortion providers such as BPAS and Marie Stopes of their role in counselling women, thus opening counselling up to pro-life and religious groups. Thankfully, she failed, but such attempts mean that we can never rest on our laurels. Over 50 bills have come before parliament since 1967 and all have aimed to restrict the rights given by the act – something doctors have resisted because many abnormalities do not show up until the 20-week scan. These bills often serve little function other than to undermine and derail, as the vast majority of abortions take place before 10 weeks.

"Over 50 bills have come before parliament since 1967 and all have aimed to restrict the rights given by the act"

Yet the attacks continue and anti-abortion attitudes prevail. Just yesterday (26 Oct 2017), conservative MP Jacob Rees Mogg, who is vocally anti-abortion, said that women who seek abortion after being raped are committing a “second wrong”. Women still face harassment going into British clinics from religious groups, whose methods have taken on a distinctly militant approach. Because of this, councillors are considering a proposed law to create an exclusion zone outside the Marie Stopes clinic in Ealing, where patients have arrived at the clinic in tears after facing horrific harassment, such as taunts of “mum” and “you’re going to hell.” Two years ago, BPAS claimed that one clinic was forced to close as a result of aggressive protesters.

There remains a long way for us to go

Another reminder that there remains a long way for us to go is the fact that the act doesn’t apply in Northern Ireland. Here, abortion legislation continues to be underpinned by the Victorian Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which makes inducing a miscarriage a criminal offence. In 2016, a woman there was prosecuted for procuring abortion pills online. In solidarity, campaigners have been openly flouting their own use of the pills.

This year, Stella Creasy MP succeeded in achieving an important victory by pressuring the government into giving Northern Irish women access to terminations on the NHS in mainland Britain, saving them up to £900 each. However, there will always be women who will be unable to travel, and a safe, legal abortion remains an impossibility for women in Northern Ireland itself.

Abortion remains the only medical procedure other than sectioning that requires signing off by two doctors

And of course, in the Republic of Ireland, women in search of an abortion face some of the tightest restrictions in the Western world, known as the eighth amendment. A referendum on whether the country should repeal it will take place next year, and we can but hope that Irish women are granted the freedoms that have so long been denied to them in the name of religion. It is a reminder of how hard-won our own rights have been.

abortion protest
#"For a long time, feminists were loath to criticise the Abortion Act at all, lest that these rights be taken away. "

For a long time, feminists were loath to criticise the Abortion Act at all, lest that these rights be taken away. This is changing as women are becoming more vocal about the fact that the Abortion Act only permits abortion in specific circumstances. Some have criticised it as paternalistic, particularly the stipulation that a termination needs to be signed off by two doctors and meets certain criteria, such as risk to the mental or physical health or the woman or potential child if the pregnancy were to continue, which, as the Women’s Equality Party have pointed out, is the only medical procedure other than sectioning under the Mental Health Act that requires this.

It would be wrong to say that even now, a woman’s decision to have an abortion is hers alone.

Women are still required to prove, for instance, that the psychological damage if the she carries the foetus to term would be immense. This takes away her agency – she is required to cast herself as on the verge of mental collapse in order to be granted the right to abortion. It would be wrong to say that even now, a woman’s decision to have an abortion is hers alone.

Abortion was a much more complex medical procedure 50 years ago than it is today. Medical advances mean that women can now terminate their pregnancies using a pill. In many European countries – including now Scotland - you can legally buy this pill and take it at your own convenience. But not many people know that abortion outside of the strict constraints of the 1967 act remains illegal in the UK. If you or I were to buy and take that pill, we could face up to life imprisonment.

"We know that criminalising abortion doesn’t stop it; it merely pushes it underground."

This is why some activists, including the WEP, are campaigning for abortion to be completely decriminalised, and regulated like any other healthcare procedure. The main medical bodies – the British Medical Association, The Royal College of Midwives, and the Royal college of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists – are in support of this.

Some women are already opting to buy and take these pills at home. In doing so, they risk prosecution. Legally, the pills have to be taken at the clinic under medical supervision. This means you might essentially start miscarrying on the journey back to your house, instead of with dignity, in the privacy and safety of your own home.

We know that criminalising abortion doesn’t stop it; it merely pushes it underground. The current regulation of abortion is not only out of step with modern medical advances, but it also does not reflect public opinion. Which is why that, as well as celebrating the 1967 act and doggedly defending the abortion rights we have already been granted, now is the time to fight for complete decriminalisation; women deserve nothing less

Send your feminist story ideas to Ask a Feminist editor harriet.hall@stylist.co.uk and she'll get one of our brilliant panel of feminists to cast a discerning eye on the issue at hand.

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