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Roe Vs Wade Shows Now Is Finally Time To Decriminalise Abortion In The UK, Says Veteran Campaigner

Wendy Savage has called on the government to decriminalise abortion in the UK in the wake of the Roe v Wade ruling in America (Alamy)

6 min read

A veteran abortion campaigner has called on the government to use the overturning of the legal right to terminations in America as the catalyst to finally fully decriminalise the procedure in the UK.

Wendy Savage, president of Doctors for Choice, said not enough people understood that you can still be prosecuted for having an abortion, with the potential for life imprisonment.

She spoke to PoliticsHome after the seismic decision by the US Supreme Court to reverse the landmark Roe v Wade ruling last week, which for 50 years has protected a pregnant woman's liberty to choose to have a termination.

During Donald Trump’s term as president he appointed three justices to the bench, which tipped the balance so the majority on the court were in favour of rolling back abortion laws, and last Friday they published a judgment overruling it.

Savage, a former leading gynaecologist who has fought for decades for the rights of women across the globe, said she read the majority decision, written by the conservative Justice Samuel Alito, and “couldn't believe” it.

“He was relying upon the fact that there was nothing in the US constitution about abortion,” she said.

"The constitution is 200 years old, women had no rights to vote, to education, they were mere property of their husbands, and so to rely upon that is completely unbelievable in this day and age.

“Where have they got these Supreme Court judges from? They seem to be completely out of touch with modern life.”

Reflecting on what the ruling means for the women’s movement globally, Savage, who helped set up abortion services in New Zealand before the country’s law was liberalised, added: “You just think, where has feminism gone?”

Here in the UK the issue of abortion is still reliant on legislation dating back 160 years, as women can still be prosecuted under the 1861 Offences against the Person Act.

The Abortion Act of 1967 merely legalised terminations in certain circumstances, with campaigners saying now is the time to finally remove abortion from the criminal justice system.

Boris Johnson isn't quite as bad as Trump but he's in the same category," Savage said.

She said an issue is that “many people do not understand that abortion is still illegal”, and that even includes some doctors.

“One of our surveys that we did that looks at attitudes to abortion, there was a minority, probably less than 10 per cent, who didn't realise that abortion was still a criminal offence,” Savage added.

“So if those in the profession don’t know, it's not surprising that most of the public don’t.

“It's a big job to educate people to see why it's necessary to decriminalise, and they don't realise that it is a criminal offence.”

She called on pro-abortion campaigners to use this moment to “keep saying the same things, and trying to get it through to members of Parliament” that decriminalisation is needed.

“One of the problems I think, is that whilst it's not that difficult to get people out to march on the streets, it's much more difficult to get them to write letters to their MPs,” Savage explained.

“Whereas the anti-abortionists, they've just got their pastors telling them to write a letter from the pulpit, and they go and do it.

“So I think we just have to keep on reiterating the message that abortion is healthcare, and it has no place in the criminal justice system.

“And we need to decriminalise abortion. But I don't feel hopeful about that.”

One part of the UK that already has decriminalised terminations is Northern Ireland, but despite a law being passed over two years ago compelling services to be commissioned, the region’s executive is yet to do so.

Savage urged Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, to make good his threat to force the region’s health services to offer full abortion services, pointing to the fact the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, an international treaty adopted back in 1979 by the UN, said back then that “the UK was wrong to deny Northern Irish women access to abortion”.

“And the government just completely ignores that,” Savage added. “Which is really depressing to think that our government should be so against something that is good for women.”

She calculated that in the years since then “there's hardly a family that hasn't been affected” by abortion in Northern Ireland.

The MP who helped get the law covering Northern Ireland passed, Labour’s Stella Creasy, announced this week she was planning to attach an amendment to the British bill of rights which will enshrine a woman’s right to choose in law.

Justice Secretary Dominic Raab was asked in the Commons if the government would support such a move, but he claimed the position was “settled in UK law in relation to abortion”.

He added: “It’s a conscience issue, I don’t think there’s a strong case for change.

“What I would not want to do, is find ourselves, with the greatest respect, in the US position where this is being relitigated through the courts rather than settled as it is now settled.”

But Katherine O’Brien from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service said it was “absolutely time to reform” the law, telling PoliticsHome’s The Rundown podcast: “It's still the case that any woman who ends a pregnancy from the moment a fertilised egg implants into her womb, if she ends that pregnancy without the permission of two doctors, she can face up to life imprisonment.

"So I think that that this is something that we really need to address, our abortion law is now over 50 years old, it was passed at a time when abortion was a surgical procedure, not a medical procedure.”

Appearing on the episode alongside her, Labour peer Baroness Dianne Hayter said she favoured increasing the availability of services and early advice "than actually going down the path of trying to change the law”.

She explained: “I think there are a load of problems there, it’s a debate that I think a lot of families find very difficult, and I'm not sure I want this to be a cause celebre.”

On the issue of decriminalisation a spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice simply referred back to Raab’s comments in the Commons on Wednesday.

  • For the full discussion on Roe v Wade listen to this week’s episode of The Rundown, out Friday

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