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MPs Could Vote On Decriminalising Abortion In England And Wales

Labour MP Stella Creasy spoke at an abortion rights protest earlier this year (Alamy)

3 min read

MPs will get the chance to vote on decriminalising abortion in England and Wales, with a Labour MP expected to table an amendment this week.

Backbench Labour MP Stella Creasy will put forward an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill on Tuesday that will give MPs an opportunity to vote on decriminalising abortion, PoliticsHome understands.

Under current British law that was passed in 1861, abortion procedures are still technically unlawful unless they meet a specific criteria. The 1967 Abortion Act created an exception where abortion would not be punishable by law if it had been approved by two doctors “in good faith” under certain conditions.

However, in Northern Ireland, where the 1967 act had not applied, abortion was fully decriminalised in 2020, putting pressure on the UK government to do the same for England and Wales. 

Although abortion law has remained unchanged in England and Wales for more than 40 years, there has recently been evidence of an increase in women being prosecuted under 1861 act, as well as use of the legislation to investigate women who have experienced stillbirths.

Examples include a 15-year-old girl who spent more than six months waiting to know whether she would face criminal charges after going through a natural stillbirth, as well as multiple women being taken to court for taking abortion pills. A mother of three children was sentenced this year to 28 months’ imprisonment for ending her pregnancy.

Stella Creasy, who has made repeated attempts to get through legislation to decriminalise abortion, said that abortion was a “human right” and that it should be a “medical, not criminal, matter”.

“The Commission for the Elimination of Violence against Women identified access to abortion as a human right and the criminalisation of it as a block to exercising that right,” she said.

“Decriminalisation would not change time limits or the regulation of abortion but make it a medical, not criminal, matter, with a Secretary of State charged with ensuring women can access this basic right.”

Labour MPs and Tory MPs alike have called for the law to be updated, with Diana Johnson, Labour MP and chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, writing in The House magazine that the threat of criminal sanctions risked deterring vulnerable patients from seeking healthcare.

“I therefore call on the government to engage with the Royal Colleges of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Midwives, the Women’s Health Ambassador and many others to develop a new regulatory regime for abortion that does not involve putting women in prison,” she wrote.

Jackie Doyle-Price, a Conservative MP and former minister and whip, wrote in The House that she was “horrified” by out of date UK abortion laws were, and said that she believed they were “unsafe”. 

“Our abortion laws are older than I am and simply do not reflect advances in medical practice that have taken place since,” she said.

The MP argued that abortion should be regulated as a medical procedure with an emphasis on patient safety, with criminal law “confined to dealing with coercive and violent practices”.

MPs also voted in favour of an amendment last year to introduce buffer zones around abortion clinics to prevent protesters harassing women attending them. However, more than a year on, no such law has been implemented while in Northern Ireland buffer zones were introduced as part of the legislation to decriminalise abortion.

“It cannot be right that in one part of the UK women have more human rights than another,” Labour MP Creasy said.

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