The campaign to decriminalise abortion across the UK

About the campaign

What is this campaign calling for?

Under a law passed in 1861, any woman across the UK who ends a pregnancy without legal authorisation from two doctors can face up to life imprisonment. We believe that abortion should be taken out of the criminal law, through the removal of sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act and equivalent common law offences in Scotland. No woman should face prison for inducing a miscarriage, and no doctor should be prosecuted for providing safe abortion care to a woman who requests it. We believe abortion should be governed by the same robust regulatory and ethical frameworks which govern all other medical procedures in the UK. In the 21st century, we should be trusting women to make their own decisions about their own pregnancies, and removing the threat of prosecution from those healthcare professionals providing women with the services and support they need.

What is the current law?

The 1861 Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA) made having or providing an abortion a crime carrying a potential life sentence. This piece of Victorian legislation, passed before women even had the right to vote, is still in force today. In line with the punitive values of mid-Victorian Britain, it calls for one of the harshest penalties for unlawful abortion imposed by any country inEurope. Only Ireland, with a maximum 14 year prison term, currently demands a similarly onerous punishment. No other medical procedure in the country is governed by legislation this old, or this out-of-step with clinical developments and the moral thinking of the modern world.

The 1967 Abortion Act, which did not extend to Northern Ireland, did not get rid of the OAPA or decriminalise abortion, but instead carved out therapeutic exemptions to the OAPA (and equivalent common law in Scotland) and allowed abortion where women and doctors met certain requirements. Although often seen as a victory of the women’s movement, the Act was passed very much in response to the growing public health problem of illegal abortions. It placed decision-making about abortion in the hands of doctors, not women. Abortion is still not a woman’s choice and no woman has the right to end a pregnancy. Instead, two doctors must decide whether they think she should be allowed to end the pregnancy. No other routine medical procedure demands legal authorisation by doctors in addition to the normal requirements of obtaining informed consent.

How does the law harm women?

Current laws do not prevent the vast majority of women ultimately accessing abortion care in the UK (with the exception of Northern Ireland), but they compromise that care at many levels.

When passed in 1967, our Abortion Act was designed to protect women’s health – yet in the 21st Century it is preventing the provision of the best possible medical care. Requiring that two doctors approve a termination can cause delays, and provisions in the Act are also used to prevent women from taking the ‘abortion pill’ (early medical abortion) at home in their own time, as women experiencing miscarriage are currently able to do, requiring instead that women attend multiple appointments at clinics and denying them choice over when the pregnancy is passed. The current interpretation of the Act also prohibits the full development of nurse or midwife-led services that are now the model in delivering woman-centred maternity care.

The threat of prosecution that is unique to abortion deters many doctors from wanting to enter this fundamental area of women’s healthcare. In recent years there have been frequent calls by those opposed to abortion to bring criminal charges against doctors – not for providing substandard or unsafe care to women – but for failing to sign the legal paperwork that is sent to Government officials correctly.

While advances in abortion care mean many women can be treated in licensed health premises in the community or stand-alone clinics, increasing numbers of women with medical conditions need to be cared for by doctors within NHS hospitals. Some of these women are then compelled to continue their pregnancy because they cannot find doctors willing or able to treat them. These women may include those with epilepsy, diabetes, or a high BMI – all of which make can continuation of the pregnancy a much greater threat to their health.

Fundamentally, it is unacceptable that women’s bodies remain governed by Victorian legislation that fossilises values well out of step with those cherished in Britain today. The criminalisation of abortion makes a mockery of the equal status that is accorded to women in any other area of life, represents discrimination against women, and stigmatises the one in three women who will have an abortion. This harms women.

So are women actually being prosecuted?

Yes. In Northern Ireland, a mother currently faces imprisonment for buying abortion medication for her young daughter who would otherwise have needed to travel to England, at huge expense, to obtain the care she needed. A second woman in Northern Ireland is also being prosecuted for inducing her own abortion. Both these women face prison terms. A 23-year-old mother from the North of England with a history of emotional and psychological problems was sent to prison in December 2015 for using abortion medication bought online to induce a pregnancy in the third trimester.

Any woman across the UK who uses abortion medication purchased online, which is now readily available, risks life imprisonment. Abortion may be relatively accessibly for most women (with the exception of Northern Ireland), yet women still resort to purchasing medication, illegally, for a number of reasons. They may be young women who are too scared to tell their parents that they are pregnant. They may be experiencing domestic violence and worried that their partner will find out if they go to their GP or an abortion clinic. They may also be women who don’t know how to access abortion services, or are unable to do so through the NHS because of their asylum status. The accessibility of this medication means the risk of women breaking the law is now greater than at any point since the 1967 Act was passed.

Other comparable countries do not send women to prison for inducing their own miscarriages. Even Poland, where abortion is all but outlawed, does not prosecute women who cause their own abortions. The use of the criminal law to punish women in the UK serves no purpose. It is not a deterrent, as any woman who feels desperate enough to try to end her own pregnancy will find a way to do so, and it cannot be seen as an appropriate punishment for a heinous crime, given that legal abortions are approved everyday.

Doesn’t the current law ensure women receive proper care? Decriminalisation could lead to unsafe or “backstreet” abortions.

Abortion provision is already highly regulated and our current law does nothing to make the procedure safer or improve care for women, indeed, as previously noted – it can have the opposite effect. Outside of the criminal law, clinics are inspected by the Care Quality Commission (CQC), and healthcare workers are bound by their professional bodies, the General Medical Council (GMC) and the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC). Healthcare teams work to detailed evidence-based guidance produced by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG).

If specific criminal sanctions relating to abortion were removed, abortion services would remain subject to the very significant body of regulation that governs all other aspects of health care provision, and negligent medical professionals could still face professional sanctions, as well as civil and criminal charges, for providing sub-standard care.

Decriminalising abortion would not mean women would turn to unqualified providers or “backstreet” abortions in Britain where safe, legal abortion is funded by the NHS, just as women do not generally look to unqualified providers for any other medical care. Unqualified individuals who provided women with abortions would potentially face existing criminal sanctions for the sale of prescription medications, in the case of medical abortion, and assault, in the case of surgical abortion.

The process of decriminalisation in other countries has demonstrated that it is possible to ensure existing criminal law offences cover non-consensual terminations, including cases of assault which result in the ending of a wanted pregnancy. As part of abortion law reform in Victoria, Australia, an amendment was made to the Crimes Act 1958 to clarify that the assault of a pregnant woman which causes the destruction of a foetus would fall within the definition of a ‘serious injury’ to the woman, carrying a sentence of up to 20 years imprisonment. In the UK, a similar amendment could be made to ensure that the law fully recognises the harm caused to pregnant women by such acts.

If abortion is removed from the criminal law, will the number of abortions increase?

There is no evidence that decriminalisation would lead to an increase in the number or rate of abortion. 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.

What would decriminalisation mean for the abortion time limit?

The abortion time limit would be removed from criminal law. There is no doubt that abortions post viability raise particular moral concerns for many people but there is no evidence that removing criminal sanctions leads to 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.

Currently, less than 0.1% of all abortions take place after 24 weeks gestation, mainly for reasons of serious foetal anomaly which could not be confirmed earlier in pregnancy. Women have terminations later in their pregnancy for very specific and very compelling reasons. Women do not wish to undergo later procedures, and doctors are unwilling to provide them outside of exceptional circumstances. This has been the experience in jurisdictions where abortion has been removed from the criminal law.

Would this change the law across the UK?

Abortion is now a devolved issue in Scotland as well as Northern Ireland, so decisions would need to be taken separately in both these regions, as well as England and Wales. This campaign seeks to remove abortion from the criminal law across the UK.

Who supports this campaign?

The campaign is supported by a range of women’s rights groups, reproductive rights campaigners and professional bodies including the Royal College of Midwives, Women’s Aid, Fawcett Society, Maternity Action, the British Society of Abortion Care Providers, Birthrights, Lawyers for Choice, End Violence Against Women, Equality Now, IPPF European Network, Voice for Choice, Southall Black Sisters, Alliance for Choice NI and Doctors for a Woman’s Choice on Abortion.

Public opinion in Britain supports women’s access to abortion. The most recent British Social Attitudes survey found that that 62% support abortion on a woman’s request, while a survey of over 2000 members of the public by YouGov for BPAS found that just one in five people support imprisonment for women ending a pregnancy without doctor’s authorisation.

This sentiment is also reflected in the views of politicians. Polling of 104 Members of Parliament conducted by YouGov for BPAS found that the majority (65%) of MPs agree with the statement: If a woman does not want to continue with her pregnancy, she should be able to have an abortion, and only a minority (17%) support imprisonment for women who end a pregnancy without legal authorisation.