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Let’s end the Victorian stigma and create a 21st century abortion law

4 min read

Whether they are in Belfast, Bangor or Bath, women deserve modern, humane and properly regulated access to abortion, writes Diana Johnson 

Abortion is governed by the oldest legal framework of any healthcare treatment in our country. Our current abortion laws date back to the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which states that any woman who procures her own miscarriage and anyone who assists her can go to prison for life.

The 1967 Abortion Act gave a route for women in England and Wales to have an abortion, setting out specific exemptions and conditions when abortion would be legal. These included the need for signatures from two doctors agreeing, for example, that termination is necessary to prevent permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman.

However, this 1967 Act never applied to Northern Ireland. This means that a woman in Northern Ireland seeking an abortion after being impregnated through rape or incest could face a heavier criminal punishment than the perpetrator – the real criminal.

However, even in England or Wales, a woman who buys abortion tablets online is still committing a criminal offence punishable by life imprisonment. It’s often the most vulnerable women, finding it difficult to access termination services, who turn to the internet.

Women on Web, a doctor-led online medical service, say that 16% of women cite domestic or ‘honour’ violence, and 8% intimate partner violence, as reasons to seek tablets online. Women impregnated by rape are often denied contraception – sometimes forcibly – to keep them bound to the abuser. 

Whether it’s in Belfast, Bangor or Bath, women need a modern, supportive, humane, properly regulated medical regime that encourages them to come forward for the best professional advice and treatment – not drive them, isolated and scared, into the unregulated internet pills market.

This June, the Supreme Court found that Northern Ireland’s current abortion laws breach women’s human rights.

With the Northern Ireland Assembly not sitting since January 2017, UK politicians can no longer look away while vulnerable women in Northern Ireland, often suffering in desperate circumstances, have their human rights breached.

Polling research released on 10th October 2018 by Amnesty International shows that 65% of people in Northern Ireland believe that “having an abortion should not be a crime”; and 66% supported the view that in the absence of devolved government “Westminster should legislate to reform the law”.

That’s why my Abortion Bill, supported by MPs from five Westminster parties, top professional medical bodies and human rights groups, seeks to decriminalise abortion across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

My Bill ensures that up to 24 weeks foetal gestation women and clinicians would no longer be subject to the criminal law. However, decriminalisation wouldn’t mean the deregulation of abortion. My aim is more effective regulation – fit for purpose in the 21st Century internet age.

The existing body of law and professional standards governing medical procedures would stay to ensure safe termination services. It would remain a crime to offer abortion services without being registered to do so, while anyone supplying the medication needed for a medical abortion without a legal prescription would breach the Human Medicines Regulations 2012.

My Bill will also strengthen protection for women. Anyone – an abusive partner, for example – who ends a pregnancy against a woman’s wishes through violence, or by administering abortion pills without the woman’s knowledge, would be subject to a life sentence. My Bill also protects doctors and nurses who conscientiously object to abortion – extending this right to Northern Ireland.

It’s time to take the Victorian misogynist stigma out of our abortion laws and to have laws that are woman-centred – removing criminal courts from decisions that a woman takes about her own body. 

Diana Johnson is Labour MP for Hull North. Her Ten Minute Rule Bill will be debates on Tuesday 23rd October 

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