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bpas welcomes first bill in 50 years to improve abortion law and protect women

  • Ten minute rule bill to decriminalise abortion up to 24 weeks to be read on Monday, 13th March
  • New research shows doctors believe current laws prevent provision of best possible medical care for women
  • Current laws also mean that any woman who ends her pregnancy without legal authorisation can face life imprisonment
  • Two thirds of adults in England and Wales do not believe a woman should go to prison for intentionally ending her own pregnancy without the permission of doctors - rising to over 70% of women.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service supports a Ten Minute Rule Bill to be read in parliament today (March 13th) aiming to decriminalise abortion up to 24 weeks and remove e threat of criminal sanction for women and doctors.

Under current laws, any woman who causes her own abortion from the moment she misses her period can go to prison for life under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA) – the harshest criminal penalty for self-induced miscarriage of anywhere in Europe, bar Ireland, where the life of a foetus is given equal weight to that of a woman. 

The 1967 Abortion Act did not overturn this law, but stated a woman would not be prosecuted if 2 doctors agreed she met specific grounds. No other medical procedure requires legal authorisation from 2 doctors in addition to normal healthcare protocols to ensure clinical safety standards, informed consent and safeguarding. The need for 2 signatures can cause delays and adds to the stigma of abortion for both women and doctors, who can also face prosecution for failing to fill in the legal paperwork correctly. New research from the University of Kent illustrates how doctors find the current legal framework restricts their ability to provide the safest, most woman-centred care. Doctors interviewed were heavily critical of the requirement for two signatures to approve each termination, and also raised concerns that the threat of prosecution is deterring new doctors from training in the field, putting the future of women's care at risk.1 

Data from the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) suggests the numbers of women purchasing abortion medication online has increased significantly in recent years.2 The reasons for this are diverse, but may involve vulnerable women who struggle to access lawful services as a result of the restrictions imposed by the Abortion Act, as testimonies recently released from one not for profit online pill provider indicate.3 Few women are aware when they use these pills they are risking a prison term, as purchasing prescription medication online – even without a doctor’s prescription – is not a crime.

Two thirds (66%) of adults in England and Wales do not believe a woman should go to prison for intentionally ending her own pregnancy without the permission of doctors, rising to 71% of women, a YouGov survey for bpas found.

Abolishing the sections of the OAPA which made abortion illegal would also mean abortion services up to 24 weeks could be regulated in the same way as other women’s healthcare procedures. Restrictions which serve no clinical or safety purpose could be removed so that women could access services as swiftly and safely as possible. Abortion is an extremely safe procedure, but the earlier it can be performed the safer it is.

On Monday, Labour MP Diana Johnson is tabling a Ten Minute Rule Bill entitled Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) which would remove section 58 and 59 of the OAPA and decriminalize abortion up to 24 weeks gestation. Abortion has been decriminalised in Canada and jurisdictions in Australia including Victoria, which as a British colony also inherited the same clauses of the OAPA. Decriminalising abortion has not led to an increase in abortions in these areas, and abortion still remains heavily regulated – as it would if it were decriminalised here.

Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said:

“Decriminalisation does not mean deregulation. But it does mean abortion care can be provided according to the highest clinical standards and principles of patient-centred care, not laws passed before any woman of reproductive age today was born. 

"Our current laws call for life in prison for any woman who ends a pregnancy without the permission of doctors. This is offensive and absurd. If we do not think we should lock up a woman desperate enough to buy abortion pills online because she cannot access lawful services, we should no longer accept a law which says we should. Decriminalising abortion - and removing needless legal restrictions - may make it easier for those women to access regulated services in the first place. Ultimately we must trust that the person who is best placed to make a decision about a pregnancy is the person who must bear the consequences of it. In 2017, we should be trusting women to make that choice.“

 

ENDS

For more information please contact the bpas press office on press@bpas.org (incl. out of hours) or call 07788 725185

Notes to Editors

About the survey:

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 1838 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 1st - 2nd March 2017. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all adults in England and Wales (aged 18+).

  • 66% of adults in England and Wales said a women should not face imprisonment
  • The percentage amongst females was 71% compared to 60% among males
  • 15% of adults in England and Wales said women should face imprisonment

About bpas:

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service, bpas, is a charity which sees more than 70,000 women a year and provides reproductive healthcare services including pregnancy counselling, abortion care, miscarriage management and contraception, at clinics across the UK. It supports and advocates for reproductive choice. More information can be found at www.bpas.org

 

1. Doctors who provide abortions: their values and professional identity, Lee, E.J, Centre for parenting Culture Studies, University of Kent

Comments included:

“Best practice is to allow direct access from the patients so they don’t have to go through a GP or another service… we’d love to be able to do that but the reality is getting that second signature is difficult...”

“It’s extraordinary that you can subject women to travelling mid-abortion [after they have taken both drugs used to induce miscarriage and leave the clinic]. I mean I find that unbelievable that the government can do that and why? I mean it’s not morally better; it’s medically more unsafe, it’s logistically more difficult for women…”

“It makes doctors frightened… they say, “Well if we don’t cross this and if we don’t tick that then somebody’s going to take our registration away”, and it’s got nothing to do with good clinical care and I’m furious about it.”

2. Data from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) shows 645 abortion pills were seized in 2015 and 2016 on their way to addresses in England, Wales, and Scotland. The number of pills seized rose 75-fold between 2013 and 2016

3. Information presented by Women on Web at Fiapac conference, 2016

Comments included:

“I've just found out I'm pregnant and I can't keep the baby, can you tell me if I can get the tablets from you please. I am in the UK but it's impossible for me to get to a clinic due to having a disabled daughter who I can't leave and I have no one else I can trust. I'm in a complete mess, clinics said I have to leave my daughter at home but I have no one else at all to have her, due to her disabilities a nursery can't have her. I'm 1 week late. I'm in good health.”

“I have visited my GP last week and he referred me to my local NHS service. They can only offer me a medical abortion with three visits to the hospital on separate days. On the second visit I am expected to stay there all day. I work full time and have two young sons so getting all that time off and childcare is going to be very difficult, probably impossible.”