The 1861 Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA) criminalised abortion and threatened women with life imprisonment for ending a pregnancy. This cruel law is still in force today. The 1967 Abortion Act did not replace the OAPA or decriminalise abortion, but stipulated specific circumstances where women and their doctors would not be prosecuted. While often seen as a triumph of the women’s movement, the Act was in fact introduced in response to the huge public health problem of backstreet abortions. It placed decision-making on abortion firmly in the hands of the medical profession – not women. Now is the time to trust women. Here are 5 reasons why we should take abortion out of the criminal law and regulate it like other women’s healthcare procedures.
Data from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) shows 645 abortion pills were seized in 2015 and 2016 on their way to addresses in England, Wales and Scotland, and over 100 packets of illegal abortion pills have been seized by police in Northern Ireland in a recent crackdown. While prosecutions are rare, increasingly more women in desperate situations are at risk of criminal sanction. In 2016, a woman in Northern Ireland, who bought abortion medication online, was given a jail sentence under this outdated UK law.
The fact that abortion continues to sit in the criminal law has a chilling effect on medical practice and doctors’ willingness to authorise abortions, and the threat of prosecution that is unique to abortion can deter doctors from wanting to enter this fundamental area of women’s healthcare. As a result, on a regular basis, women must continue pregnancies they do not want because they cannot find doctors willing or able to treat them.
In requiring women obtain the permission of 2 doctors, the current law can delay women who are sure of their decision. This can harm their health as abortion – while extremely safe – is safer the earlier it is performed. It also prohibits nurse or midwife-led services that are now the model in delivering woman-centred maternity care. Provisions in the Act are also used to prevent women from taking medication for an early abortion at home in their own time, after it has been prescribed by a doctor, as women experiencing miscarriage are currently able to do.
No woman aspires to experience an unwanted pregnancy and undergo an abortion. Our abortion rate is stable, and women try very hard to avoid unplanned pregnancy. Decriminalisation would not change that. Other jurisdictions in Canada and Australia have removed abortion from the criminal law without experiencing an increase in the rate of abortion nor an increase in later terminations. Prior to 1990 in Scotland there was no abortion time limit. Despite the legality, there was not a greater proportion of late term abortions performed. Women only request later abortion in exceptional circumstances.
A survey of over 2000 adults in England and Wales conducted by YouGov in March 2017 for BPAS found that two thirds did not support imprisoning women who end a pregnancy without doctor’s authorization, rising to 71% of all women surveyed. Polling from Amnesty has also demonstrated that public opinion in Northern Ireland is far more liberal than the current law.
There are around 200,000 abortions a year in the UK and one in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime. Taking abortion out of the criminal law will not change the numbers of women having abortions, but regulating it in the same way as any other healthcare procedure would be far more suited to the beliefs and values of our society today.