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Prosecutions of women spur We Trust Women campaign to scrap cruel, archaic abortion laws

Abortion should be removed from the criminal law and 21st century women trusted to make their own decisions about their pregnancies, a campaign launched by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas) urges today.

• Across the UK, a woman who ends her own pregnancy at any gestation can be sentenced to life imprisonment under laws created before women could vote.

• Two women currently being prosecuted in Northern Ireland for abortion offences and one woman jailed in England in 2015.

We Trust Women campaign to decriminalise abortion supported by range of women’s organisations including Fawcett Society, Royal College of Midwives, End Violence Against Women Coalition, and Women’s Aid.

• Humans actress Gemma Chan voices film charting the 150-year fight for gender equality to launch We Trust Women campaign.

Women’s organisations have today backed calls for Victorian-era legislation criminalising abortion to be scrapped and for the procedure to be regulated in the same way as all other women’s healthcare. In every country in the UK today, a woman who ends her own pregnancy without legal authorisation can be sentenced to life in prison.

The 1861 Offences Against the Person Act (and equivalent common law offences in Scotland) - passed before women could vote – threatens the harshest punishments for self-induced abortion imposed by any country in Europe today, with the exception of the Republic of Ireland.

The 1967 Abortion Act did not overturn this law, but made abortion lawful if 2 doctors agreed a woman’s mental or physical health would suffer if forced to continue her pregnancy. It did not extend to Northern Ireland. But even where it applies, abortion is not a choice a woman can make for herself, but a decision which must be made on her behalf by doctors.

In Northern Ireland, two women are currently facing imprisonment under the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act for buying abortion medication online, one for inducing her own abortion and a mother who wanted to help her daughter. Last year in Durham, England, a young mother was imprisoned for two-and-a-half-years for inducing a miscarriage in the third trimester also using medication bought online. The increasing availability and knowledge of these pills means more women are likely to put themselves at risk of prosecution.

A film to accompany the campaign, narrated by Humans actress Gemma Chan, charts the history of women’s struggle for equal rights and firmly situates the fight to overturn this legislation as one of the final legal hurdles to equality remaining for women today.

Abortion cannot be provided solely on the request of a woman anywhere in the UK today, and a doctor, midwife or nurse who provided safe abortion care on her request alone could face prison.

Why we need decriminalisation

• Current abortion legislation is not in keeping with principles of women’s rights, bodily autonomy, and patient-centred care

• The threat of prosecution puts doctors off training in this field and providing care. Today, even where the 1967 Act applies, women are compelled to continue pregnancies because they cannot find doctors willing or able to treat them

• In requiring women obtain the permission of 2 doctors, the current law can delay those who are sure of their decision. It has also prevented developments in clinical practice that have facilitated the safe and effective treatment of women in other countries

• As safe and effective medications to induce abortion become readily available online, more women are at risk of prosecution. Even countries such as Poland, where abortion is highly restricted, do not prosecute women for self-inducing abortion

• The UK trails behind Canada and Australia where abortion has been decriminalised

Ann Furedi, Chief Executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said:

“One in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime in the UK. The ability to end a pregnancy has enabled women to live their lives in the way that they see fit and bear children at the time they think is right. It is high time we recognised this by taking abortion out of the criminal law, and making clear that we trust women to make their own decisions about their own lives and bodies.”

Supporters of the campaign include the Royal College of Midwives, Fawcett Society, the Family Planning Association, Women’s Aid, Maternity Action and End Violence Against Women, as well as pioneering women’s rights activists who campaigned for the 1967 Abortion Act.

Sam Smethers, Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society, said:

“Safe, early, medical abortions are readily available but our outdated abortion laws hinder women’s access to them. It makes no sense to force women to delay the termination of a pregnancy when that is their decision.

“We need modern abortion legislation fit for 21st Century.”

Goretti Horgan, Alliance for Choice Northern Ireland:

"The two women currently on trial in Northern Ireland are facing the sharp end of the criminalisation of abortion in the UK. They are on trial essentially because they could not afford to travel to Britain and pay for a private abortion. If the mother who faces prison for getting abortion pills for her teenage daughter lived in England, her daughter would have been fast-tracked for an abortion if that's what she wanted. A 21-year old is facing life imprisonment for taking pills that she would have got on the NHS had she lived in Britain. This should not be happening in the 21st century."

Diane Munday, the former general secretary of the Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA) in the 1960s, said:

“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.

In the past 50 years, technology and medicine have moved forward beyond belief, yet abortion remains hedged with the same red tape as it did in the 1960s. The anachronistic legal need for two doctors who know nothing about the pregnant woman, her life and her circumstances still stands. Jurisdictions including Canada and Australia have decriminalised abortion and the skies have not fallen in – and neither have rates of abortion risen.

In 2016, it is time for Britain to catch up and to acknowledge that women know what is best for themselves and their families.”

ENDS

For more information and background to the campaign please visit http://www.wetrustwomen.org.uk/ or contact the bpas press office on 0207 061 3377 or 07788 725185 or email press@bpas.org

About bpas

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 bpas.org.