Victorian abortion law ‘breaches human rights’
A campaign to push for abortion to be removed from the justice statutes and decriminalised is to be launched this month by the country’s newest political party.
Sophie Walker, leader of the non-partisan Women’s Equality party, said it was time that abortion was made a sexual health and human rights issue, rather than left languishing under “Victorian criminal law”, where a life prison sentence still exists for procuring a termination. This is a flagship policy for the party, which will hold its first conference in Manchester next weekend. It hopes that with pressure from its supporters, other political parties will take up the issue.
The current legislation governing abortion is the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which came into force decades before women had the vote.
is part of life in mainland Britain: one in three women will have an abortion before the age of 45, with the highest rate among 21-year-olds. Rates have remained fairly constant over the past few years, higher in England and Wales than in Scotland, with 197,906 Britons and 5,190 non-British residents having an abortion last year. About 98% are NHS-funded and the vast majority, 80%, carried out at less than 10 weeks pregnant.
Under the 1861 act, and as amended by the Abortion Act 1967, abortion remains a criminal offence; only cases that meet certain caveats 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, resulting, say campaigners, in the law simply being circumvented in many cases. And it is also open to political interference. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service believes the rules work only because health professionals work around them.
The WE party has grown to more than 65,000 members and 65 regional groups since its inception last year. It fielded its first political candidates at local and regional elections this year, including for the London mayor.
“This is really about making it very clear that women’s healthcare rights are human rights,” said Walker. “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.”
Former Progressive Unionist party leader Dawn Purvis is on the advisory board of Marie Stopes International, which provides contraception and safe abortion services. She is to give a keynote speech at the WE 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 situation in Northern Ireland is different to mainland Britain in that, basically, a woman has to be about to die before she is allowed a termination,” Purvis said. “Rape or incest or foetal abnormality are not circumstances under which an abortion will be allowed. We’re seeing women being prosecuted and convicted as criminals – one was reported by her GP after she had gone to him for help, another is a woman being prosecuted for helping her daughter.
“But thankfully we are seeing more and more legal challenges – late last year we had a ruling that the stance of the Ministry of Justice was incompatible with international standards on human rights.”
Diana Johnson, Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull North, has tabled a 10-minute bill for the spring when she will also raise the issue of decriminalising abortion. She does not want to change time limits but wants medical procedures to be governed by clinicians, rather than the criminal law.
“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,” she said. “Decriminalising abortion, for both health professionals and for women, would put the issue with clinicians and health experts, where it belongs.”