Parliament must vote to decriminalise abortion
Labour MP Stella Creasy spoke at an abortion rights protest earlier this year (Alamy)
When Roe v Wade was repealed in America last year, many voices in the UK were quick to dismiss concerns that restrictions on a woman’s basic right to choose could ever happen here, and assumed that our right to access abortion services was secure and reflected the settled will of the people.
At the same time, multiple women were awaiting trial, under a law older than the nation of Germany, for the offence of having an abortion. In contrast to Northern Ireland, abortion in England and Wales remains a criminal offence, with only a few closely defined circumstances in which people are exempt from prosecution.
These archaic laws, which had laid untouched for decades, have suddenly reared their heads as the culture wars which dominate so much of society spread to womens bodily autonomy. In the last year alone, six women have been charged with having an abortion. Many more have faced investigations and a knock on the door from the police. Each of them could spend the rest of their lives behind bars.
This is not just a concern for those women who have abortions. Increasingly, any woman who has a miscarriage or stillbirth is at risk of being dragged into criminal investigation by laws which we all recognise were written in a different age.
There are numerous examples of where these archaic laws have been misused to threaten women who have experienced spontaneous pregnancy loss or stillbirth. Megan, a young teenager, suffered a stillbirth at 28 weeks. The police investigated Megan’s involvement in her child’s death for a year before the post mortem confirmed that the pregnancy loss was due to natural causes. She faced this ordeal whilst dealing with the trauma of the stillbirth, resulting in her needing emergency psychiatric care.
Or the young teenager who was unaware that they were pregnant and delivered a stillborn child. Once this was declared her hospital room was flooded with police offices, the presumption of foul play assumed before a post mortem or doctor's examination.
"The Criminal Justice Bill will give Parliament an opportunity to ensure the human rights of women across the UK are equally upheld and protected"
Whilst sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against a Person’s Act are more widely known, section 60 is what is most frequently used to initially charge an individual. Section 60 is used to prosecute when there is suspicion of abortion and has been used in at least two cases this year alone. It is used to target vulnerable, desperate individuals and leaves bereaved parents exposed to intrusive questioning and investigation from the police.
If this was occurring in Northern Ireland, then the women would not face this pressure. In 2019, MPs voted to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland, responding to years of pressure from campaigns in Northern Ireland and around the world. Decriminalisation doesn’t mean deregulation, and there are clear time limits and medical guidelines affecting access to abortion - what there is not is a threat of criminal investigation to those who have one.
We now have a two-tier system, with women in the UK given different rights depending where they live.
Last year, the Government made clear that it was for Parliament to decide whether or not to end this injustice and decriminalise abortion for good. Doing so need not change the current clear regulation, meaning you would be no more able to get a late term abortion than you are now – but it would recognise that abortion should be a healthcare, not criminal matter.
With prosecutions continuing and the government resisting parliaments will to introduce buffer zones it’s never been more important to act. The Criminal Justice Bill will give Parliament an opportunity to resolve this difference and ensure the human rights of women across the UK are equally upheld and protected.
Stella Creasy is Labour and Co-operative MP for Walthamstow
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