Diana Johnson: As we celebrate votes on decriminalising abortion in Northern Ireland, it’s time for a new Abortion Act for England and Wales too

Posted On: 
18th July 2019

Women in England and Wales can still go to prison for having an abortion – we must remove the criminal law from what is essentially a matter between a woman and her doctor, says Diana Johnson

Diana Johnson MP and abortion rights campaigners march in the 2019 St Patrick's Day Parade in London
Credit: 
Kevin Morton

The last few months in Parliament have been extremely frustrating as we await the crowning of a new prime minister and the next stage in the unfolding drama of Brexit.

However, one very bright spot in the last couple of weeks before we head into the Summer recess has been the clear majority in Parliament to deal with the long-standing breaches of human rights in Northern Ireland.

The number of MPs who swept into the Aye lobby to support both same-sex marriage and abortion reform during the passage of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill was a surprise to those of us who have been campaigning for change for many years. It’s often a squash in the Aye lobby when votes are supported cross-party, but it was absolutely worth it when we were united in remedying long-standing inequality! 

Moreover, with the repealing of the criminal law on abortion under the hugely outdated, cruel and misogynistic Victorian statute, the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861, we will see abortion decriminalised and treated as a properly regulated healthcare issue for the first time in any part of the UK. 

This is exactly what my Ten Minute Rule Bills in 2017 and 2018 sought to do. Both passed the House of Commons on first reading, but sadly made no further progress.

We are now in the situation that Northern Ireland law on abortion will be more liberal, progressive and modern than in England and Wales. 

At the time of David Steel’s 1967 Abortion Act the termination of a pregnancy was a surgical procedure. His Act saved thousands of lives from illegal back street abortions, retaining the criminal law but allowing abortion to take place in limited circumstances with the approval of two doctors. Of course, it never applied at all in Northern Ireland.

With the latest changes in the law, women in England and Wales, but no longer Northern Ireland, will still be subject to the criminal law. They can go to prison for life for having an abortion if they, for example, buy tablets over the internet to procure an abortion. 

We now need all women in Northern Ireland, Wales and England to have the same access to good reproductive healthcare services and professional advice; and for the criminal law to be removed completely from what is essentially a matter between a woman and her doctor.

Of course, decriminalisation does not mean deregulation and there will be statutory regulation, clinical and professional standards about how abortion services will be delivered in Northern Ireland. However, we can all celebrate the fact that Northern Irish women will no longer live in fear of going to prison for deciding to do what is in their best interests – often in the most difficult of circumstances – and in cases of sexual assault, potentially facing harsher punishment than a rapist.

This now leaves the government in the position of having to address the anomaly created by decriminalising abortion in one part of the UK but leaving criminal laws in force in England and Wales. 

The time is now for reform of abortion law. This means the decriminalisation of abortion and a new abortion act fit for the 21st century to replace the historic, but now outdated, Abortion Act 1967; a new act which puts women’s healthcare needs at its centre.  

This approach is supported by the British Medical Association, The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, The Royal College of Midwives, The Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Health, Amnesty International, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the Family Planning Association, Marie Stopes International, the End Violence Against Women Coalition and Women’s Aid.

I hope that in this Parliament we will soon determine that women in England and Wales will join women in Northern Ireland in having abortion laws fit for this century.

Diana Johnson is Labour MP for Hull North