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MPs Call For Stronger UK Abortion Rights After Historic US Abortion Bans


4 min read

Several MPs have called on the UK government to strengthen domestic rights to abortion care following the United States' historic decision to overturn a ruling protecting the right to abortion.

MPs expressed their concern during an urgent question in the Commons responding to the US Supreme Court's decision to overturn the law ensuring a constitutional right to an abortion – known as Roe Vs Wade. It is now up to individual states to pass their own abortion laws, with a number of them instigating an immediate and total ban. More are expected to follow. 

In UK law, the Abortion Act 1967 allows for access to abortion if permission is granted by two doctors. The '67 Act provides protection from prosecution under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, meaning abortion in the UK is still technically a criminal act. MPs have long argued for a new law that fully decriminalises abortion, a provision that was included when abortion rights were recently extended to Northern Ireland. 

But Friday's historic roll-back of abortion rights in the US has served to highlight the vulnerability of the UK law. 

Labour MP Diana Johnson, who tabled the urgent question, and is a leading proponent of abortion decriminalisation, said the decision by the US Supreme Court sent a “stark message” that women’s rights to reproductive healthcare “were not worth protecting”.

“In effect, the state has taken control of women's bodies and denied them bodily autonomy. 

“But as we all know, restricting access to abortion does not remove the need to end a pregnancy.  

“One in 10 women in the United States will need an abortion in their lifetime, and this decision will result in more dangerous abortions, a rise in maternal deaths and the criminalisation of women clinicians, and those from marginalised communities will be most affected.”

She urged the government to include provisions protecting “women’s rights to access reproductive healthcare” as part of its upcoming plans to change human rights legislation in the UK.

The home affairs select committee chair also urged ministers to put in place stronger protections for those attending abortion clinics by introducing buffer zones to prevent protesters, a proposal that MPs have repeatedly rejected in recent years. 

Johnson’s calls for better constitutional protections for abortion rights in the UK were echoed by fellow Labour MP Stella Creasy, who asked foreign office minister Amanda Milling if she would personally support a future amendment guaranteeing the right to abortion.

“This is, fundamentally, for many of us a human rights issue. Roe Vs Wade gave American women a constitutional right to have an abortion. 

“Currently here in the UK, only women in Northern Ireland have their constitutional rights to an abortion protected as a human rights. We can change that,” Creasy said.

Milling did not confirm how she would vote if such an amendment was added to future human rights legislation, but reiterated that any such vote would be a free vote for MPs as it is a “matter of conscience”. 

Some MPs were more supportive of the decision by US Justices to overturn Roe Vs Wade. Danny Kruger, Tory MP for Devizes, said that while he understood the “degree of distress and concern” over the Supreme Court’s decision, the UK should not be “lecturing” the US.

“The fact is I probably disagree with most members who have spoken so far about this question. They think that women have an absolute right of bodily autonomy in this matter,” he said.

“Whereas I think in the case of abortion that right is qualified by the fact that another body is involved.”

Kruger added: “I don’t understand why we are lecturing the US on a judgment to return the power of decision over this political question to the states, to democratic decision makers rather than having it in the hands of the courts.”

Speaking on Friday, Boris Johnson described the decision to overturn Roe Vs Wade as a “big step backwards”, and said he “believed in a woman’s right to choose and I stick to that view”.

“We recently took steps to ensure that those laws were enforced throughout the whole of the UK,” he said, referring to the changes to abortion laws in Northern Ireland.

Johnson's support for abortion rights was echoed in the Commons by Milling on Tuesday, who said she “shared that view”.

“This is not our court. It is another jurisdiction. But this is a big step backwards,” she told MPs.

“The UK’s position is that women and girls in the UK should have the right to access the sexual health services, including those relating to sexual and reproductive health, which includes safe abortion care.”

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