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Campaigners Lobby for 'Full Decriminalization' of Abortion in the UK

Under Victorian-era laws, British women can be prosecuted for having a termination unless two doctors agree. The We Trust Women campaign, spearheaded by leading abortion rights groups, says that the time limit needs to go.
Photo by Tommaso Tuzj via Stocksy

The UK's abortion law is "cruel and Victorian"—and not just in Northern Ireland. That's according to a campaign, launched today, that's calling for the full decriminalization of abortion.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (Bpas) campaign, We Trust Women, comes amidst growing political pressure around abortion rights in Northern Ireland, and just two months after the prosecution of a 24-year-old woman in England for aborting her pregnancy during the third trimester, using abortion pills she'd bought online.


"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," Bpas CEO Ann Furedi told Broadly. "We're coming up to 50 years of trying to make the existing law work, and we're seeing the problems with it. Family planning is a really good thing, and it's now time to see that abortion has a place in that."

Supported by organizations including the Fawcett Society, End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW), the Family Planning Association (FPA), and the Royal College of Midwives, the campaign is calling not only for abortion rights to be extended to Northern Ireland, but for abortion to be entirely decriminalized across the UK—by scrapping the legal time limit and requirement for two doctors to sign off on a termination.

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"Abortion is an essential part of women's reproductive health," campaign supporter FPA said. "No other medical procedure requires the legal authorisation of two doctors in addition to informed consent. Removing abortion from criminal law and regulating it in the same way as other medical procedures would allow health professionals to focus on providing high-quality care."

The UK's current legal framework for abortion has its roots in the mid-Victorian 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which made having or providing an abortion a criminal offence, punishable by up to life imprisonment. The 1967 Abortion Act, often hailed as a feminist victory, created exemptions to the OAPA throughout most of the UK. However, it did not remove the original 1861 law and, according to Bpas, "is not in keeping with principles of women's rights, bodily autonomy, and patient-centered care."


We Trust Women is situated very much within the history of the women's rights movement, with Bpas holding up decriminalization as the next major hurdle in women's fight for legal equality. The campaign video, voiced by Humans actor Gemma Chan, charts campaigning women's achievements—from the 1882 Married Women's Property Act, to Emma Watson launching the UN's He For She campaign in 2014—before Chan's voiceover delivers Bpas' closing challenge: "Does a more outdated, patriarchal law exist in Britain today than this?"

Campaign supporter The Fawcett Society, the UK's leading women's equality charity, agrees that abortion law is out of step with women's legal rights in other areas of modern life. Chief Executive Sam Smethers told Broadly: "Abortion rights are fundamental. It's about a woman's control over her own body, her right to choose."

For Diane Munday, who campaigned for the current Act during the 1960s, decriminalization is long overdue. "If in 1967—on the day I celebrated that Parliament had put Britain in the vanguard for women's reproductive rights—anybody had told me that nearly half a century later we would be lagging behind most of Europe, I would have called them deluded. But they would have been right," she said. "Jurisdictions including Canada and Australia have decriminalized abortion and the skies have not fallen in—and neither have rates of abortion risen."

So what would decriminalization look like in practice? Ann Furedi believes removing legal restrictions would make abortion safer and more accessible to all British women. "At the moment, the fact that abortion is governed by criminal laws means only doctors can carry out abortions, whereas nurses and midwives are more than clinically qualified," she explained.


"Women have to make trips to receive medications that it would be far better for them to be able to take in their own home, and women are called on to justify very private and intimate decisions about their family planning; all of that is entirely unacceptable. Doctors are in the position of moral gatekeeping, when really the doctor's job is a clinical one."

For supporters EVAW, a national coalition of organisations campaigning to end violence against women, abortion rights are crucial for ensuring vulnerable women can make difficult decisions based on their health and wellbeing alone.

"Women and girls who have suffered sexual violence sometimes need to make decisions about terminations, and women and girls in violent and controlling relationships are often subject to pressure either to continue a pregnancy or terminate one. These women may need extra support from health workers, and this would be best delivered entirely separate to criminal law," explained Sarah Green, the acting director of EVAW.

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The most controversial aspect of the campaign is likely to be the issue of removing the 24-week time limit on abortions, but Bpas insists decriminalization would not lead to an increase in late-term abortions.

"Removing a legal time limit on abortion would make very little difference to the number of abortions. In Scotland there was no time limit on abortion until 1990, and the number of abortions that took place was even fewer than there were in England and Wales," Furedi said. "The issue should not be what time limit the politicians think is right. That decision should be made by a woman and her doctor - why should anyone else be involved at all?"

"This is where it comes down to trusting women," she added. "By the time a woman's 24 weeks pregnant, she's visibly pregnant and feeling fetal movements—do we really think a woman in that position is less able to make a responsible and deliberate decision about her future than some politician sitting in Parliament? It really is about who gets to make the decision."