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Our abortion laws are outdated and unsafe

(Alamy)

3 min read

The sentencing of a woman for procuring an abortion at a late stage in her pregnancy has provoked significant reaction. For some the focus has been the advanced nature of her pregnancy. For others, the length of the sentence that has been handed down. Some of us are horrified by both.

This unhappy case is a product of our abortion laws as they currently stand. The criminal justice system is required to enforce the laws that Parliament has passed. If we are not happy with the outcome of this case then we should change the law.

I came to the view when I was health minister that our abortion laws is horrifically out of date. Our abortion laws are older than I am and simply do not reflect advances in medical practice that have taken place since. I think now that these laws are unsafe.

Abortion has always been treated as a matter of conscience when considered in Parliament. That is quite reasonable. For many people, life begins at the moment of conception and the law should protect life from then on. For that reason abortion is outlawed under the Offences against the Person Act 1961. The 1967 Abortion Act effectively creates an exemption from that act. It established a qualified right to abortion where it could only take place in specifically licensed premises; following the approval of two doctors and at up to 24 week’s gestation. The woman sentenced this week was due to the gestation of her baby being in excess of 24 weeks.

Our abortion laws are older than I am and simply do not reflect advances in medical practice that have taken place

The framing of this legislation reflects the issues at the time. The fact abortion was illegal led to dangerous backstreet abortions. The requirement for licensed premises and two doctors was to stop such dangerous practice from being legitimised. This legislation has led to over 80 per cent of terminations being administered outside the NHS in specially licensed clinics that do nothing else. It stigmatises the women seeking treatment and it makes the services less accessible to vulnerable women. 

The law also reflects a time when all terminations required surgical intervention. Today most terminations take place by the administration of pills and, more importantly, they take place very early in the pregnancy. In short it is not the procedure it once was.

Medical abortions ought to be made available in more mainstream health settings. There is no reason why the pills cannot be dispensed at family planning clinics and well woman clinics. It is important, however, that they should only be dispensed if safe to do so – that is if a medical practitioner has established that the pregnancy is in the early stages.

In this case, the woman was able to obtain the pills through a telephone consultation and by being able to deceive the clinic that gave them to her. There is a real debate to be had about how services can be accessed safely, ensuring the real needs of women are addressed. It is a fact that had we not had the provisions for remote consultation during lockdown, this unhappy episode simply would not have happened. 

Abortion should be regulated as a medical procedure with an emphasis on patient safety. The law should recognise that abortion is something which will often be considered by a pregnant woman and her healthcare professionals in the context of managing a healthy pregnancy. The criminal law should be confined to dealing with coercive and violent practices. This case should force us all into confronting the need to make abortion law safe and fit for purpose. 

 

Jackie Doyle-Price, Conservative MP for Thurrock

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