Overwhelming majority of public do not support current criminal punishment for abortion in Great Britain, as growing numbers of women seek abortion pills online

  • Under current law, any woman in England, Wales, and Scotland ending a pregnancy without the permission of two doctors faces up to life imprisonment, including women who obtain pills online.
  • New polling finds nearly two-thirds (65%) of British adults do not support the current criminal sanction. Just 14% support it.
  • Data released shows that on average two women a day from Great Britain contact one digital provider alone, Women on Web, to request abortion pills because they cannot access legal services, including women caring for children with long-term medical conditions, women with severe morning sickness, and women unable to leave their home without a chaperone.  
  • Only 14% polled are aware of the current law – bpas has launched a short film to raise public awareness of the fact abortion remains a crime if performed without permission outside government approved clinics and hospitals.
  • Bpas is calling for abortion to be decriminalised up to 24 weeks of pregnancy to protect vulnerable women from prosecution and improve access to care.

The overwhelming majority (65%) of British people do not believe a woman should face prison for having an abortion without the permission of a doctor. The current law in England, Wales and Scotland requires permission from 2 doctors for the abortion to be legal, and threatens one of the harshest penalties for unlawful abortion in the world.

Just 14% of people polled by YouGov on behalf of bpas supported the current punishment for a woman intentionally ending a pregnancy without authorisation from a doctor, which is up to life in prison under the terms of the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act. 70% of women and 61% of men said they did not think a woman should face prison in these circumstances.

While for most women in Great Britain, abortion services are relatively accessible, but for some women attending a specific clinic or hospital for treatment can be extremely difficult due to the distance to the clinic and work or childcare commitments. There can also be a wait for treatment, which is a particular challenge for those who are ill as a result of pregnancy and may mean women no longer qualify for early medication abortion as they have passed 10 weeks of pregnancy. There are also women who cannot access services due to partner and family control. Consequently, women in difficult circumstances are turning to online sources – potentially risking criminalisation.

Women on Web is a digital community that answers thousands of help-emails every day from women around the world. If from a country where access to safe abortion is restricted and under 10 weeks pregnant, the website can refer women to a licensed doctor who can provide abortion pills on completion of an on line consultation which reveals no contraindications. However requests from women in Great Britain, despite legal access to abortion, have been increasing, and a recent review found 100 requests over a 7 week period, or an average of 2 per day.

The women in contact with this service who felt unable to access legal abortion services included women experiencing severe pregnancy sickness and those with children with complex medical needs. These included:

“My young child is undergoing chemotherapy. I have no one to care for her whilst I attend a clinic appointment. I really am at my wits end as I don’t have any way to attend this appointment so I would like to have the abortion at home.”

 “I come from a strict religious family, which requires me to have a chaperone when I go out so unfortunately I am not able to access the services. I have been trying herbal alternatives like papaya and vitamin c for over a week but it’s not working and now I am losing my mind.”

 “I can’t cope with the pregnancy until [the next available appointment]. I feel really sick every day and I can’t cope with day to day activities and looking after my two young children as a single mother. So I desperately want to get rid of this pregnancy because I can’t carry on until that date.”

Last year the BBC reported that the Medicines Watchdog the MHRA had seized almost 10,000 sets of abortion pills over 3 years headed to British addresses. The fact that women may know they are breaking the law and risking prosecution may mean they are less likely to seek help if they are concerned about symptoms during or in the immediate aftermath of treatment. 

Just 14% of the general population said they were aware of the law, which contains one of the harshest penalties in the world. Even countries like Poland, where abortion is virtually outlawed, do not punish women for inducing their own abortion. bpas has launched a short film to raise public awareness that abortion remains underpinned by a law from 1861.

Last week the Government confirmed it would repeal sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act, which criminalised abortion, in Northern Ireland by the end of October, meaning that women who use abortion medication online no longer face criminal sanction, and clinicians can now begin to consider how best to provide services in NI. However, this legislation remains in effect in Great Britain, and bpas is campaigning for the decriminalisation of abortion across the UK.

Decriminalising abortion would not mean deregulation, but would mean abortion could be governed in the same way as other healthcare procedures, improving access and addressing the needs driving women to turn online.

Clare Murphy, Director of External Affairs at bpas, said:

“No woman should face prison for needing to end her own pregnancy and we are pleased though unsurprised to see the British public agree with us. The decriminalisation of abortion does not mean deregulation, but it would mean women could seek help and support closer to home. We need to get rid of these offensive laws that have no place in a world which respects women and their ability to make their own decisions for themselves and their families in pregnancy, and we need an abortion framework fit for women’s needs in the 21st Century.”

Dr Kate Guthrie of Women on Web, said:

“It’s very clear from the despairing emails we receive that the current legal framework around abortion in the UK simply does not meet the needs of many ordinary women trying to do their best for their families and themselves – including those in the most desperate of circumstances. Some women just cannot access clinics. Decriminalisation of abortion would enable women to obtain regulated care and support in the way that best met their own needs.”

Caitlin Dean, chair of Pregnancy Sickness Support, said:

“Women suffering from severe pregnancy sickness often struggle to get the care they need. For some women termination of pregnancy is the only actual cure for this condition, which can leave them unable to look after their existing children, go to work or even leave their bed let alone their house. It is entirely unsurprising that women would end up seeking abortion pills online, but absolutely shocking that in doing so they are committing a crime that carries a possible sentence of life in prison. Lawful, regulated telemedical services would make a huge difference to woman in this situation, suffering in a way few of us could possibly imagine.”

ENDS

Watch the short film here. For media enquiries please call 0207 061 3377, 07788 725 185 or email press@bpas.org.

Notes to Editors:

Although the 1967 Abortion Act made termination of pregnancy lawful in particular circumstances, the underlying criminal provisions remained. Unlike other clinical procedures, women must obtain legal authorisation from 2 doctors before she is allowed to end a pregnancy and it can only be performed in specific Government approved clinics or hospitals. Any abortion outside of this remains a criminal offence for the woman. This includes when a woman uses abortion medication online.

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2,014 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 12th - 15th July 2019. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

About bpas

bpas is a charity which sees more than 80,000 women a year for 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 bpas.org.