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The UK's Biggest Union for Midwives is Facing a Christian Abortion Challenge

Royal College of Midwives CEO Cathy Warwick is facing calls to resign as a Christian lobby group tears into the leading midwifery organization's support for decriminalizing abortion.
Photo by Sean Lock via Stocksy

Christian midwives are up in arms about the UK's leading midwifery union and its support for the decriminalization of abortion.

Christian lobby group Christian Concern is backing a campaign calling on the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), the largest midwifery association in the country, to officially revoke its support for decriminalizing abortion. An accompanying petition currently stands at nearly 10,000 signatures, while a letter to RCM chief executive Cathy Warwick has been signed by around 200 midwives.


Signatories to the letter claim that the union's position was taken without consulting its members. "We object to this new extreme position taken by the College," midwife Judith Smyth told Broadly. "It is out of keeping with what we take to be the ethic of our profession, as well as the consistently expressed wishes of British women with regards to the legality and regulation of abortion, and it has been taken with no consultation whatsoever of RCM membership." In an email to Broadly, Christian Concern CEO Andrea Minichiello Williams called for RCM chief Cathy Warwick to be fired.

Whatever the current furore might suggest, the Royal College of Midwives actually backed decriminalizing abortion three months ago as part of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service's We Trust Women campaign.

Abortion is currently governed by criminal law in the UK, which means that women who seek abortions outside of the current legal framework can face prison sentences. This dates back to the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which makes it a crime for a woman to self-induce abortions. Last year, 24-year-old Natalie Towers was sentenced to two and a half years for using abortion pills she bought online. In 2010, another woman was given a twelve-month suspended sentence.

BPAS is calling for the government to scrap the current 24-week time limit on abortion and the requirement for two doctors to sign off on a termination. In February, BPAS CEO Ann Furedi told Broadly: "It's absurd that a procedure which is so necessary for women's lives, and so accepted by British society, should remain a criminal offence."


Read more: Why British Women Are Forced to Pay More for the Morning-After Pill

Thundering headlines about how "midwives are meant to save unborn lives, not destroy them" ignore the reality that the Royal College of Midwives is not calling for abortion to be made available up until birth: They are in favor of treating abortion procedures like all other procedures related to women's health care—that is, separate from the criminal code. In a statement released last week, the RCM clarified that midwives will continue to be able to abstain from abortion procedures on conscientious grounds.

BPAS spokesperson Claire Murphy told Broadly she was frustrated with how their We Trust Women campaign was being misrepresented. "I absolutely think it's the case that our campaign is being distorted. We want abortion to be taken out of the law and regulated like other heath care procedures.

"If you look at places like Canada and parts of Australia, where decriminalization has already taken place, you don't see an increase in either the numbers of abortions carried out, or an increase in the gestation period at which it's carried out. That's because women don't want later abortions, and doctors don't want to do them. And you don't need criminal law to govern that."

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Removing the 24-week limit currently in place in the UK and decriminalizing abortion would likely have very little effect on actual rates of termination. According to the Royal College of Midwives, less than 0.1 percent of all abortions in the UK take place after 24 weeks, and the overwhelming majority (92 percent) of all the 200,000 abortions that take place annually occur in the first trimester.


Unsurprisingly, Christian and right wing politicians in the United Kingdom have been vocally opposed to decriminalization. Nadine Dorries MP, who thinks abstinence education should be compulsory for teen girls and once said that child sex abuse would be reduced if girls learned how to "say no," described those in favour of decriminalizing abortion as "socialist fanatics":

Medical unions been taken over by socialist fanatics. What kind of midwife supports aborting a baby at full term?

— Nadine Dorries (@NadineDorriesMP)May 16, 2016

Read more: Pregnant 12-Year-Old Forced to Wait Weeks for Court to Approve Her Abortion

Proving the old adage that those politically opposed to abortion are rarely in possession of a uterus, Jim Shannon of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party told the the Daily Mail that the RCM's support for decriminalizing abortion was "absolutely disgraceful." Fellow white man sans uterus and Labour MP Robert Flello described it as an "abhorrent proposal," before urging the RCM to put the decision to their membership, rather than making the decision at an executive level.

In reality, Warwick's position should not face any immediate challenge. Only a tiny fraction of the RCM's 46,000 members back the Christian Concern campaign. In a statement released to Broadly, the RCM confirmed that they wouldn't be changing their position: "If we are to be advocates for women then we must advocate for choice on all aspects of their care. The RCM is not for or against abortion. It is for women, and respecting their choices about their bodies."