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Women are being prosecuted for terminating pregnancies – it's time to reform cruel abortion law

Protest to demand reform of the abortion law in Great Britain, London, UK, June 2023 (Credit: See Li/Picture Capital/Alamy Live News)

4 min read

In common with 90 per cent of the UK population, I wholeheartedly support a woman’s right to choose.

So when I heard a few months ago that investigations and prosecutions for suspected abortion offences had risen sharply, I knew that the time had come for Parliament to reform our cruel and archaic abortion laws that are no longer fit for purpose.

My cross-party amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill seeks to ensure that vulnerable women in England and Wales are no longer subject to years-long investigations, criminal charges, and custodial sentences for ending their pregnancy outside the confines of the law. This change has already happened in Northern Ireland.

It is clear to me that there has never been a stronger mandate for parliamentary action. The need has never been so urgent

Although abortion is both available and accessible throughout England and Wales, the law underpinning it dates back to the 19th century – an era when women were disenfranchised and only men were allowed to become MPs. Medical technology has moved on as well.

Indeed, because of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, abortion is still a criminal offence. In today’s context, this means that any woman who procures an ‘illegal’ abortion – that is, an abortion outside of the confines set out in the Abortion Act 1967 – is liable to be sent to jail for up to a maximum life sentence.

In the year before I first tabled my amendment one woman had been convicted of having an ‘illegal’ abortion, six people were awaiting trial, and over 50 others were under investigation by the police. 

The majority of women who have been investigated by police were post-24 weeks and are reported by clinical staff in hospitals when they present with complications. Cases are wide ranging from women in custody after a stillbirth, to teenagers doing their GCSEs. 

In June, there had been national outcry when a Staffordshire mother-of-three was sentenced to 28 months in prison for ending her own pregnancy. In the original sentencing remarks, the judge made it clear that women will only be protected from prosecution if parliamentarians bring forward legal change. It is clear to me that there has never been a stronger mandate for parliamentary action. The need has never been so urgent.  

What these women so crucially need is properly regulated professional care, support, and compassion – not criminalisation. That is what my amendment would ensure. This is why it has the support of the women’s sector including the Royal Colleges of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Midwives, and General Practitioners, Women’s Aid, Karma Nirvana, Refuge, the Fawcett Society, and Mumsnet.

In recent weeks, it has been reported that members of the UK government – including Health Secretary Victoria Atkins and Chancellor  Jeremy Hunt – intend to support this change when it comes to the floor of the House.

With such an appetite for the removal of women from the criminal law relating to abortion, it is no surprise that the anti-abortion lobby have been working overtime to try to discredit my amendment, and table their own. 

By contrast, the amendment laid in the name of Caroline Ansell MP seeks to reduce the gestational time limit from 24 weeks to 22 weeks, despite the fact it is not supported by any of the Royal Colleges or medical bodies. Current evidence shows that 95 per cent of babies born at 22 weeks will not survive long enough to be discharged from neonatal care, and of the ones that do more than two-thirds will have serious lifelong medical conditions. The amendment is also out of step with public opinion, of which less than a quarter believe that the time limit should be reduced.

When it comes to abortion law reform in England and Wales it is vital that we move forward, not back. That means supporting my amendment – and a woman’s right to choose – and opposing the Ansell amendment.

Diana Johnson is the Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull North

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