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The Rundown: Overturning Of Roe Vs Wade Exposes UK Abortion Law's Fragility

3 min read

The Labour peer Baroness Hayter and Katherine O'Brien from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service join PoliticsHome's Alain Tolhurst and Adam Payne for this week’s episode to discuss the reverberations of the US Supreme Court's overturning of Roe Vs Wade, meaning abortion is now banned or severely restricted in a number of American states.

The historic roll-back of women's rights exposes the fragility of UK abortion law, and the long term campaign by MPs to rewrite the law in order to finally decriminalise the procedure in this country.

Reacting to the court ruling from America, Baroness Hayter called it “not just an enormous blow to women's rights, but people's rights too”.

She said it is “a men's issue” too, pointing out the decision will not end abortion, merely safe abortion.

“So this is not about the ending of abortion,” the peer explained. “This is about the undermining of a woman's right, and I think a family's right, to have a safe and legitimate abortion.

“Part of the reason I think it is everyone's issue is if it was your daughter that was raped, that is a man’s issue as well, if it was your wife, who at the age of 50, found herself pregnant because she thought she was going through a menopause and actually couldn't deal with it, that is also a family issue.”

After a series of protests last weekend O’Brien said as well as a “huge outpouring of rage” in response to the Roe vs Wade decision it “potentially marks a moment for the pro-choice majority in this country to make their voices heard”.

She said the court’s decision “really sends a signal that hard-fought for rights can be overturned, and that we can't rest on our laurels,” adding: “So I do think that there is this opportunity for positive change here in the UK, however, we know that this is going to embolden anti-abortion groups.

“At BPAS we have a number of clinics that face regular protests by anti-abortion groups, and we're very concerned that this will embolden them even further,” O’Brien explained.

“So I think that certainly there is that anxiety around what it can mean for women who are accessing abortion today in the UK, and certainly we do have in Parliament a number of quite ferociously anti-abortion MPs who will use any opportunity to roll back abortion rights.

“And indeed there are a number of Cabinet ministers who would welcome the opportunity to roll back abortion rights, so I think it is quite a precarious time.”

She said "action is woefully overdue” on creating buffer zones for protest around abortion clinics, but “ultimately the legislative reform that we want to see is decriminalisation”.

Despite the 1967 Abortion Act legalising termination in certain circumstances the procedure is still illegal under the terms of the 1861 Offences against the Person Act, with new figures revealing women are still being prosecuted in some circumstances.

“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,” O’Brien said.

"So I think 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.

“So yes, it's absolutely it's time for reform.”

In response Baroness 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.”

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

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