A new campaign supported by women's organisations has been launched to decriminalise abortion and regulate it in the same way as all other women’s healthcare.
Abortion debates in the U.K. tend to focus on the situation in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, where abortion is illegal even in cases of rape, severe foetal impairment and risk to the health of the pregnant woman.
But in England and Wales there is still a horrifically archaic law in force (Scotland has its own common law version), which can send a woman to jail for having a self-induced termination.
"Every woman, being with child, who, with intent to procure her own miscarriage, shall unlawfully administer to herself any poison or other noxious thing […] shall be liable to be kept in penal servitude for life" states section 58 of the 1861 Offences against the Person Act.
The 1861 Act (and the Scottish common law equivalent) threatens the harshest penalties for self-induced abortion of all European countries, apart from the Republic of Ireland. Even in Poland, where abortion is highly restricted, women are not prosecuted for self-inducing abortion — a process that is becoming ever easier thanks to the availability of medication to buy online.
While the 1967 Abortion Act made abortion lawful, if two doctors agreed a woman's mental or physical health would suffer if she was forced to continue her pregnancy, it did not overturn the archaic Victorian-era legislation made long before women won the right to vote.
However even the 1967 Act does not give a woman the choice to make for herself — it remains a decision to be made by others on her behalf.
A new campaign launched by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, #WeTrustWomen, aims to scrap the "cruel" abortion laws that could sentence a woman to life in prison for ending her own pregnancy (regardless of gestation period).
#WeTrustWomen is backed by a range of women's organisations including the Fawcett Society, Royal College of Midwives, End Violence Against Women Coalition and Women's Aid, who support the view that current abortion laws in the U.K. deny women their fundamental human rights and compromises their care by deterring doctors (a doctor who provides safe abortion care to a woman who has requested it without the approval of a second doctor can be sent to prison).
Last year a young woman in Durham, England, was imprisoned for two-and-a-half-years for inducing a miscarriage in the third trimester of her pregnancy using medication bought online. Two women are currently being prosecuted in Northern Ireland for abortion offences: one for inducing her own abortion with medication and the other a mother who wanted to help her daughter.
"If in 1967 — on the day I celebrated that parliament had put Britain in the vanguard for women's reproductive rights — anybody had told me that nearly half a century later we would be lagging behind most of Europe I would have called them deluded," said Diane Munday, the former general secretary of the Abortion Law Reform Association in the 1960s. "But they would have been right.
"In the past 50 years, technology and medicine have moved forward beyond belief, yet abortion remains hedged with the same red tape as it did in the 1960s. The anachronistic legal need for two doctors who know nothing about the pregnant woman, her life and her circumstances still stands. Jurisdictions including Canada and Australia have decriminalised abortion and the skies have not fallen in — and neither have rates of abortion risen. In 2016, it is time for Britain to catch up and to acknowledge that women know what is best for themselves and their families."
Find out more by watching the We Trust Women campaign video:
For abortion advice contact Marie Stopes UK on 0345 300 8090.
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