(Originally published on The Debrief)
Yesterday MPs won the right to introduce a bill to Parliament that will finally decriminalise abortion following a ten-minute rule bill which was introduced by the Labour MP, Diana Johnson. The bill won the vote at 172 to 142, however that only equates to a majority of 32.
Not everyone present was happy about the proposal. Conservative MP Maria Caulfield spoke against the bill during the debate yesterday and said: ‘I and my colleagues will not be silenced as we seek to be the voices of the voiceless.’ She feels that, if the bill makes it through Government and is passed, it will have negative effects on women. However, despite opposition from other MPs and Catholic charities, the new Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) Bill is set to will have its first reading on March 24.
You would be forgiven for being a little perplexed at this point. Isn’t abortion already legal in the United Kingdom (with the exception of Northern Ireland)? Yes…and no. Under the 1967 Abortion Act, abortion is only legal if it is approved by not one, but two, doctors and the person who wishes to terminate a pregnancy can show that they meet certain criteria. If you do not meet those conditions, or attempt to self-administer an abortion in the UK then you are still, technically, punishable by up to life in prison.
How can this be? Well, the 1967 Abortion Act legalised abortion under certain circumstances and with certain conditions but it did not completely do away with a law which, quite literally, dates back to Victorian times. Under the Offences Against The Person Act (1861) abortion was a criminal offence, the 1967 Act ruled that it would be legal to carry out an abortion with the permission and guidance of two doctors.
The legal loophole here is that, in some circumstances, it is still illegal for a woman to have an abortion under sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Act and the maximum penalty is life imprisonment. Currently, a woman wishing to have an abortion must do so before she is 24 weeks pregnant unless there are exceptional, medical circumstances.
Any woman who self-terminates a pregnancy without permission from two doctors (for example, from buying abortion pills off the internet) is still technically breaking the law. And, as The Debrief reported last year, the number of women using these methods is rising.
It’s a little confusing because what’s being proposed won’t actually change the restrictions on abortion, which are already written into current laws, it will simply decriminalise the act of terminating a pregnancy. This means that if a woman did buy pills online or attempt to terminate a pregnancy herself, while she would have broken the law, she would not potentially face life in prison for doing so.
In December 2015, a woman was jailed for two and a half years in Shildon, County Durham after trying to terminate her own pregnancy. Natalie Towers, 24, bought abortion pills on the Internet in order to induce a miscarriage while she was 32-34 weeks pregnant (abortion is legal in the UK up to 24 weeks, with sign off from a doctor. It is only legal after that if there is a risk to the mother’s life or in cases of foetal abnormalities) . The judge in her case at Newcastle Crown Court, Mr Justice Jay, gave her a custodial sentence, saying ‘this offence does involve extinguishing a life about to begin.’
While her defence maintained that she did know how far along she was, the judge said ‘the law in this country is quite clear…it was open to you to seek termination at any stage before 24 weeks…’ While it’s unclear why Towers did not go to the doctors before 24 weeks, this case surely highlights the draconian nature of the application of the law in what surely, if it is anything, is a mental health issue, not a criminal one.
Diana Johnson explained the importance of her proposal to The Debrief. ‘I am delighted that our arguments won the day in the first step to repeal Britain’s outdated criminal laws related to abortion’ she said, however, she pointed out that decriminalising abortion is not the same as changing the law on abortion entirely. ‘There is a long way to go to get the law changed and abortion decriminalised’ she explained, ‘it is clear that decriminalisation will not mean deregulation, and Parliament will need to consider carefully the regulations it believes are necessary when the law is decriminalised.’
‘This initial vote is not binding on the Government and they are not required to change the law as a result of it.’ Before Johnson’s Bill can officially go through it will undergo a second reading, she told The Debrief she has reservations about when this will take place: ‘whilst I have been given the date of Friday 24th March for the Second Reading of my Bill, it is listed 74th on the order paper for that day and so stands no chance of being debated.’
So what next? Diana says ‘the task now is to build upon this early success to bring about a real and necessary change to our law. In the new Parliamentary session, I will continue to work with women, campaigners, doctors, nurses, lawyers and MPs to champion this important reform.’
On the significance of this bill Clare Murphy, Director of External Affairs at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service told The Debrief ‘we are delighted to see this bill pass to second reading. Decriminalising abortion would not mean deregulating abortion or result in an increase in so-called backstreet abortions – rather it would mean doctors could provide care for women in accordance with the highest clinical standards and not laws passed 50 years ago.’
‘Arguments by those opposed to decriminalisation that it would make vulnerable women less safe are baseless: women in difficult circumstances are not protected or supported by laws that criminalise them and it is simply nonsensical to suggest they are. If we do not think any woman should face prison for making her own decision about her own pregnancy, then we can no longer accept laws that say they should. We look forward to the progression of this bill and thank all those MPs who have supported it so far.’