The “most draconian laws in the world”: Women’s Health Strategy all but silent on abortion
Last week, the Department for Health and Social Care published its long-awaited women’s health strategy for England. Although the strategy – which seeks to address disparities in health and wellbeing outcomes for women – has been welcomed by many, stakeholders have criticised a glaring lack of focus on abortion services.
When health secretary Steve Barclay set out the strategy to the House of Commons on 20 July, Dame Maria Miller, the Conservative member for Basingstoke said the strategy was “silent on the biggest healthcare injustice that women face in our country – that abortion is still treated under Victorian criminal law, with the most draconian laws in the world".
Today, in England, Scotland and Wales abortion technically remains a criminal offence under the Offence Against the Person Act 1861.
This criticism has come at a time when focus on abortion law has been intensified following the US Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v Wade, meaning millions of women across the US could now face jail time if they seek to terminate a pregnancy. The landmark ruling, which took place on 24 June 2022, sent shockwaves around America as nearly 50 years of protection for women’s reproductive rights were all but reversed.
Questions are now being asked around the globe, with other Western countries grappling with the notion that such an event could ever happen in their own backyard. In France, a parliamentary majority voiced support for a bill to enshrine abortion rights in the French constitution, and on Thursday 7 July, the European Parliament endorsed a resolution to make abortion a fundamental right in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
In England, Scotland and Wales, however, abortion technically remains a criminal offence under the Offence Against the Person Act 1861. Even today, women are only able to access abortions legally under certain circumstances and via the Abortion Act 1967. As such, an abortion is only legal if performed by a medical professional, has been authorised by two doctors, and if the pregnancy is under 24 weeks.
In practice women in Great Britain could still face prison sentences for accessing abortions. Two women in England are currently facing the prospect of prison time for procuring abortions via unofficial means. A 25-year-old woman in Oxford will stand trial in February next year, charged of having “unlawfully administered to herself a poison or other noxious thing, namely Misoprostol”. The other woman has been charged with child destruction under the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1992.
Reporting on these cases combined with an upswell of emotion following the roll-back of abortion rights in the US has led a crescendo of voices calling on the government to decriminalise the practice once and for all.
“Our position on abortion legislation in the UK (and abroad) is clear: we support decriminalisation of abortion care. This would mean removing criminal sanctions, and subjecting abortion to appropriate regulations and professional standards instead,” a spokesperson from the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Health told The House.
In a letter sent from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), a group of 66 organisations including the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and Southall Black Sisters have asked the DPP to “issue urgent guidance to stop the prosecution of women who end their own pregnancies with immediate effect”. In the “shadow of the overturning of Roe v Wade”, the letter reads, “it is never in the public interest to prosecute women in these circumstances”.
As well as decriminalisation, stakeholders have called on the government to protect the right to abortion through legislation. Stella Creasy, the Labour/Co-operative member for Walthamstow, suggested she would table an amendment to the government’s Bill of Rights – which is scheduled to have its Second Reading in the Commons on 12 September – to protect a woman’s right to choose in law.
The government have said there are no plans to review or change existing abortion laws. The Department of Health and Social Care is, however, developing an action plan to improve sexual and reproductive health services which would be published later in 2022.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson told The House, “Under the 1967 Abortion Act, women have access to safe, legal and regulated abortion services. The wellbeing and safety of women and girls accessing abortion services has been, and will continue to be, our first and foremost priority.”
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