The 1861 Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA), which criminalises abortion, is a Victorian piece of legislation that fossilises values well out of step with those cherished in Britain today.
IT’S PATRONISING TO WOMEN
Under the 1967 Abortion Act, which provided exemptions from prosecution under the OAPA but did not decriminalise abortion, a woman cannot decide for herself to have an abortion.
This decision has to be made on her behalf, by two doctors. This paternalistic approach sits at odds with every other clinical procedure. In the 21st century, a woman who ends her own pregnancy without the permission of 2 doctors can be "kept in penal servitude for life”.
IT DISCRIMINATES AGAINST WOMEN
The criminalisation of abortion makes a mockery of the equal status that is accorded to women in any other area of life, and represents discrimination against women.
Without the ability to control their fertility, women would have not achieved the level of educational and workplace equality that younger generations can rightly take for granted. Abortion cannot solve all the problems of sexual equality; but without the ability to exercise reproductive choice, women have no hope of planning their own life course.
It is entirely inappropriate that a procedure which has underpinned such enormous and beneficial social change should sit within criminal law.
IT IS AT ODDS WITH FUNDAMENTAL LEGAL PRINCIPLES
The fact that abortion remains within criminal law sits at odds with other legal principles of bodily autonomy. A pregnant woman cannot be compelled to undergo any intervention against her wishes, even if her fetus may die as a result.A mother cannot be forced to donate a kidney to a dying child, but she can be compelled to sustain a fetus against her will.
THE PUNISHMENT IS ENTIRELY DISPROPORTIONATE
A young woman who takes abortion pills bought online could be sent to prison for 12 years. A doctor who provides safe abortion care to a woman who requests it without the approval of his or her colleague could be sent to prison for 12 years. If we do not believe these people should be imprisoned we should not accept a law which stipulates that they should.
PUBLIC OPINION HAS CHANGED SINCE THE 1960s
The 1967 Act was also developed in a context where public opinion was far more ambivalent about abortion than it is today. Two thirds of people today say that abortion should be allowed according to a woman's choice, compared to 37% in 1983.
ABORTION IN BRITAIN TODAY IS A FACT OF LIFE
There are around 200,000 abortions a year. One in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime. Sexual health policy supports the provision of abortion, and 98% of abortions are funded by the NHS.
It is bizarre that it should be governed by criminal law rather than regulated in the same way as any other healthcare procedure.
IT PREVENTS BEST CLINICAL PRACTICE
The fact that unlike any other medical procedure and for no clinical reason whatsoever 2 doctors must authorise every request for an abortion inevitably causes needless delays. Women undergoing miscarriage treatment are able to take the pills they need to pass an early pregnancy in the comfort of their own home.
The law prevents women undergoing early abortion from doing this. Abortion procedures today are safe and straightforward, and do not need to be performed by doctors. However the law currently denies nurses and midwives a larger role in the provision of care.
IT PUTS DOCTORS OFF CARING FOR WOMEN
One of the aims of the Abortion Act was to protect doctors from prosecution when performing legal abortions. But misinterpretations of the law leave doctors exposed to the ‘chilling effect’ of smear campaigns and challenges by opponents of abortion. This impacts seriously upon women’s care, with doctors more reluctant to provide it over fears of prosecution.
REMOVING IT FROM THE CRIMINAL LAW WILL NOT INCREASE ABORTIONS
Other jurisdictions, in Australia and Canada, have successfully removed abortion from the criminal statute, in order to regulate it with laws more appropriate to a mainstream healthcare procedure.
This has not caused an increase in the rates of abortion, or the proportion which take place at later gestations, and has provided a more constructive platform to consider how abortion can best be provided in the 21st Century.