The UK Will Finally Vote to Decriminalize Abortion Today

Under archaic Victorian laws, women can face criminal charges if they obtain an abortion without the permission of two doctors. A vote in Parliament could change all that.

by Sirin Kale
Oct 23 2018, 3:05pm

See Li/Alamy News

Politicians in the UK will vote on Tuesday to decriminalize abortion in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, paving the way for an end to an 19th century Victorian law that makes abortion a crime punishable by up to life in prison.

Although abortion is legal in England and Wales due to the exemptions created by the 1967 Abortion Act, terminating your own pregnancy without the permission of two doctors is still a crime punishable under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. Although it is safe to take the abortion pill without medical supervision, this means that women who purchase abortion pills online could still face criminal prosecution.

In Northern Ireland, abortion remains illegal unless the woman's life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious risk to her mental or physical health. Between 2013 and 2018, three women have been charged for buying pills, including one instance in which a woman obtained pills for her 15-year-old daughter who was in an abusive relationship.

Labour MP Diana Johnson is introducing the ten-minute bill to decriminalize abortion in Parliament, and politicians must vote in favor of the bill in order for it to progresses further to eventually become law. The vote has been backed by a coalition of women’s interest groups, including the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Imkaan, Rape Crisis England & Wales, and Southall Black Sisters.

Campaigners argue that the current system does not work for women who are unable to make the multiple medical appointments necessary to obtain an abortion in England and Wales. Full-time carers or those on a low income may be unable to take the time off work, and undocumented women may be unable to visit a doctor for fear of alerting the immigration authorities. Women in abusive relationships can also struggle to access healthcare without alerting their partners.

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"Across the UK, women who end their own pregnancies risk life imprisonment because of a 150-year old law which does not reflect women's lived realities. We find it abhorrent that in 2018, women are still being punished for making the choice that is right for them, and their body,” says Leah Cowan, policy and communications coordinator at Imkaan.

“In addition, we know that women who are subjected to domestic violence, sexual violence and so-called 'honor-based' violence are more likely to require abortion services, and because of current barriers in accessing care, are less able to access the services they need. It is clear that current laws are working against women's best interests: this is reproductive injustice. We are calling on MP's to vote in favour of decriminalizing abortion."