Abortion, decriminalisation, and the women’s rights argument.

In 1967, an Act of the UK Parliament was passed, which legalised abortions by registered practitioners, and regulated the free provision of such medical practices through the National Health Service (NHS). This was the Abortion Act 1967, commonly referred to as the ‘1967 Act’.

It was introduced by David Steel as a Private Member’s Bill, but was backed by the British Government, who appointed the President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Sir John Peel, to chair a medical advisory committee that reported in favour of passing the bill. The bill prompted heated political and moral debate, against  backdrop of conservatism, religious objection, and a legacy of so-called ‘backstreet abortions’. Under a free vote it was passed on 27 October 1967, coming into effect on 27 April 1968.

The 1967 Act made abortion legal in all of Great Britain (but not Northern Ireland) for up to 24 weeks’ gestation. In 1990, the law was amended by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, meaning that abortion was no longer legal after 24 weeks except in cases where it was necessary to save the life of the woman, there was evidence of extreme fetal abnormality, or there was a grave risk of physical or mental injury to the woman.In May 2008, there was a parliamentary debate over whether the limit should be reduced from 24 to either 22 or 20 weeks but no changes were made.

Abortion laws in the United Kingdom appear stricter than those countries where abortion is available entirely on demand, as the health of the mother must be taken into account. Having said that, it has been said that abortion is “part of life in Great Britain“: one in three women will have an abortion before the age of 45. The highest rate is found among 21-year-olds. Abortion rates have remained fairly constant over the past few years, higher in England and Wales than in Scotland. It was found that 197,906 Britons and 5,190 non-British residents had an abortion last year. About 98% are NHS-funded and the vast majority, (around 80%) are carried out at fewer than 10 weeks pregnant. With this in mind, a campaign to lobby for abortion to be removed from the British justice statutes, and decriminalised entirely, is due to be launched this month by the country’s newest political party – the Women’s Equality Party.

You see, the current legislation governing abortion in Great Britain is the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act.The 1861 Act was amended by the Abortion Act 1967, but abortion actually still remains a criminal offence in Great Britain. As outlined previously, only cases that meet certain criteria are exempt from prosecution. Two doctors must sign to confirm that a woman’s or her unborn child’s health and welfare is at risk, and abortion is limited to 24 weeks maximum. Campaigners have argued that the 1967 Act thus requires reform, and that abortion services are only viable now because healthcare professionals operate around the law. Campaigners thus advocate for what has been termed ‘abortion on demand’, i.e. remove the requirement for doctors’ signatures and permit women to access abortion services when they need them. With an abortion outside these criteria still deemed criminal, the result is that a life prison sentence still exists on the statute books for women if they acquire an abortion without two doctors’ agreement.

It is on that basis that Sophie Walker, leader of the Women’s Equality party, has argued it is now time that abortion was made a sexual health and human rights issue. This has become a key policy for the new party, and it is hoped that a movement will be built that pressures other political parties to follow suite.

Ms Walker is proceeding on the argument that women’s healthcare rights – also termed ‘reproductive rights’ – are human rights. She submits that the existence of the criminal threat is a threat to women’s rights, and to the realisation of full equality. She has stated:

“That is why we want to debate this motion at our first conference and to put a focus on prioritising and funding sexual health and wellbeing. If you are denied control over your own body then you are denied so many other controls over your life. Any denial of reproductive rights is a form of violence against women, and the massive funding cuts ongoing in the UK are part of a real trend that is de-prioritising equality.”

Ms Walker might not have to wait too long for her campaign to encourage other politicans to advocate decriminalisation. Diana Johnson, Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull North, has tabled a 10-minute bill for next year, and where she hopes to also raise the issue of decriminalising abortion. Miss Johnson does not want to change time limits, but does want to see medical procedures under the governance of clinicians, as opposed to the current system of governance by the criminal law.

She has said that:

“any woman procuring an abortion is potentially facing a prison sentence of life under legislation dating from 1861 is patently something that needs looking at carefully…Decriminalising abortion, for both health professionals and for women, would put the issue with clinicians and health experts, where it belongs.”

What I found interesting about stumbling across this story today is that there is a Northern Irish connection to this.

Dawn Purvis, a former Leader of the Progressive Unionist party is on the advisory board of Marie Stopes International, which provides contraception and safe abortion services. She apparently will give a keynote speech at the first Women’s Equality party conference on the position in Northern Ireland, where several prosecutions are under way of women who have used the so-called ‘abortion pill’.

The 1967 Act does not extend to Northern Ireland, where abortion is illegal unless the doctor acts “only to save the life of the mother” or if continuing the pregnancy would result in the pregnant woman becoming a “physical or mental wreck.” Essentially, the situation in Northern Ireland (in 2016) is the same as it was in England before the introduction of the Abortion Act 1967. The Offences against the Person Act 1861 and the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945 remain in full force. It should be noted that rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality are not pemritted circumstances for women to acquire an abortion.

In November 2015, a Belfast High Court Judge found that the law in Northern Ireland breaches the human rights of women, and declared it incompatible with the Human Rights Act 1998 which enshrined the ECHR into domestic law. Declaring a law to be incompatible with the ECHR does not render it invalid according to s4(6) of the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA 1998). The HRA 1998 provides that parliamentary sovereignty remains paramount; in the case of Northern Ireland the Assembly will decide whether to devise a bill pertaining to abortion in the state in light of the judge’s ruling. The Executive may also suggest a bill in light of the ruling. In addition, Mr Justice Horner did rule out imposing changes that could have led to limited terminations occuring in Northern Ireland. He stated that allowing abortions for victims of sexual crime, and cases of FFA under the present law would “be a step too far”. His decision thus placed the onus on the Assembly to consider his judgment, and how to proceed. But at present, there is no legal compunction on Stormont’s politicians to change the law.

I look forward to reading about the Women’s Equality Party Conference, and the speech to be delivered by Dawn Purvis. If Ms Walker’s proposed campaign receives strong support, it could resonate with other political parties. I am curious to see how Ms Johnson’s 10-minute bill progresses, and what comments are made during debate. I find mysef wondering if the heated debate witnessed in 1967 might be replicated in 2017, fifty years in the making.
Most of all, I wonder how the above will impact, if at all, Northern Ireland. It is a complicated, tangled mess of a legal-political scene. The political parties here are divided on the issue. Many parties are against the extension of the 1967 Act. Some have called for abortion to be legalised on the grounds of rape and incest. The Justice Minister is currently reviewing a completed reort which investigated whether aborion should be legalised on the grounds of FFA. Legal and political certainty is needed here.
So we wait, and wonder. I wrote something along the lines of waiting in November 2015. I find myself saying the same, nearly one full year on. And I will probably be writing the same in November 2017.




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