Abortion is not fully legal in the UK, despite what we may think. That needs to change.
It’s generally understood abortion in the UK is legal – but sadly that is not the case.
by: Hannah Barham-Brown
16 Jun 2023
Pro abortion protesters march to the US embassy in May 2022. Image: Guy Bell/Shutterstock
This week, the news broke that a woman had been sentenced to over two years in prison for having an abortion outside of the legal time limit. The case itself is tragic, and it was made even more devastating by the intervention of our criminal justice system, which will now be separating a mother from her three children.
As a person living in the UK you could be forgiven for being a little confused. It’s generally understood that the battle for reproductive rights in England, Scotland and Wales was won a long time ago, and that abortions are ‘fully legal’ – but sadly that is not the case.
With this recent case we have been exposed to the harsh reality women face on our own soil when procuring an abortion and the risks that women are taking to access what is essential healthcare.
Abortion rights in the UK have never been a given; women need to fit specific criteria and secure the permission of two doctors – a fact that surprises many who have had abortions, as they may never personally interact with them. Although prosecution is uncommon it can and is happening.
When the news broke this week that a woman had been convicted for seeking abortion over the legal time limit it broke my heart.
As a doctor, I feel devastated that our own healthcare service was used against a woman at a time when she needed us the most. And what’s worse is that cases like this will only continue unless we ensure that this case draws a line in the sand once and for all.
The law that was used in this week’s case – the Offences Against the Person Act – originates from the Victorian Era, in 1861. It even predates women’s right to vote. And more importantly it isn’t fit for purpose in the 21st Century.
This act sets out that an abortion can carry a maximum sentence of life in prison; this still stands today, and is further supported by the Infant Life Preservation Act of 1929.
The only reason we are able to access abortions is due to the 1967 Abortion Act, which allows exceptions to these laws, making abortions legal when two doctors determine that continuing the pregnancy would risk the physical or mental health of the woman. Meaning the decision lies with not one but two doctors, who have to grant permission for an abortion. Without those permissions, no matter what gestation, an abortion is illegal.
This realisation has understandably shocked and worried many who may seek an abortion in the future; but the vast majority undergo the procedure each year without incident. In general, in the UK, if you want or need an abortion within the legal time limits you will still be able to access one. But as this week has shown, leaving these archaic laws on our statute books has cruel and unnecessary consequences.
It’s not *just* the occasional rare prosecution. In 2021 a 15-year-old girl was subjected to a year long police investigation after a stillbirth, and another woman was taken directly from surgery following a stillbirth to spending 36 hours in a police cell. More recently, a woman was listed as having committed the crime of ‘child destruction’ after she committed suicide while pregnant.
These laws serve absolutely no one, and actively cause harm to women and their families. Which is why we at the Women’s Equality Party are calling for the full decriminalisation of abortion.
It is perfectly possible to safely regulate abortions like all other medical procedures. Decriminalisation does not mean abortion without limits and safeguards. It simply means that women are not forced to endure traumatic police investigations following miscarriages, and do not face imprisonment when things go wrong.
Abortion is already decriminalised in many countries around the world, including Canada and Northern Ireland. In fact in the UK we have some of the most punitive abortion laws in the world. Even Poland, where abortions are banned, does not criminalise women who personally procure an abortion.
The only thing criminalising abortions does is make them less safe.
We must trust women to make their own decisions about their bodies, about what’s best for themselves and their families with appropriate support from medical professionals.
I joined the Women’s Equality Party (WEP) because I found a political home amongst tenacious activists who actually make a difference for women. Women’s rights are consistently kicked to the bottom of the political to-do list – especially when it comes to women’s health. When I found a political party that didn’t just flip the political script but completely rewrote it I knew it was the one for me.
The party has been a huge part of not only the protection of abortion rights here in the UK but the progression since our beginnings in 2015.
WEP is, right now, the only political party that is calling for the full decriminalisation of abortion. No one deserves to be criminalised for seeking healthcare, which is a human right. We won’t stop until abortion is safe, free, and legal for everyone.
Hannah Barham-Brown is a Leeds-based GP registrar and former deputy leader of the Women’s Equality Party
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