Legal abortion is a human right

Alice Arkwright says it’s time for government action to decriminalise abortion

There has been a resurgence in the debate around access to abortion in 2018 with the UK mainstream media reporting on two globally historic moments. In May, Ireland voted in a public referendum to legalise abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and in June, Argentina’s lower house of Congress approved a bill to legalise abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. Although this was then voted down by the Senate, the bill mobilised hundreds of thousands of people in support of safe access to abortion.

These changes are a result of decades of feminist struggle and the International Safe Abortion Day, on the 28th September, marked an important time to celebrate these victories. It also highlighted the need to use the momentum from these votes to promote women’s reproductive rights and access to safe abortions around the world. The Irish referendum result sparked immediate campaigning for Northern Ireland to legalise abortion, where currently it is only permitted when it can be demonstrated that the woman would suffer serious, long term or permanent damage to her health. The UK Supreme Court and a report by Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) have both stated that the situation in Northern Ireland contravenes human rights law, calling on Westminster to act. The current government, which remains propped up by the DUP, has shown little inclination to address the law in Northern Ireland despite political and public will for change. The campaign must remain on the public agenda to help ensure that human rights are not forgotten in the relationships and negotiations surrounding Brexit.

In the rest of the UK, an abortion can only be carried out no later than 24 weeks into a pregnancy and women must seek permission from two doctors, which is not required for any other routine medical procedure. Additionally, it is still considered a criminal act under certain conditions. A woman who ends her own pregnancy without the permission of doctors can be sentenced to life in prison under legislation dating back to Victorian times, and women can face up to 12 years in prison for using abortion pills purchased online. Whilst these laws do not prevent the majority of women (outside Northern Ireland) from accessing abortions, they are having real consequences; a 23-year-old was sentenced to prison in 2015 for using abortion medication brought online. The We Trust Women campaign, supported by numerous Royal Colleges and the British Medical Association, is calling for the complete decriminalisation of abortion, for abortion to come under the same rules and regulations that apply to other medical procedures and for women to be trusted to make their own decisions.

The restrictions placed on abortion raise interesting debates over the limitations on women’s choices. Reasons for buying abortion pills online include the time taken travelling to services, which impacts on child care and work; lack of access to free NHS services, such as for those in the process of claiming asylum; privacy concerns regarding the stigma associated with the procedure; and being in controlling or abusive relationships with partners and family. Therefore, those in already vulnerable conditions are being driven to break the law. Additionally, barriers to abortion are impacted by a variety of social factors, including geography, employment and migration, but also race and disability. Ethnic minorities are underrepresented in abortion figures in the UK and women with disabilities face distinct barriers to sexual and reproductive services. These intersecting influences do not seem to be considered in current legislation.

The process of decriminalisation would also remove time limits on abortions. A sensitive area of the debate, currently less than 0.1% of abortions in the UK take place after 24 weeks. Imposing time limitations increases the risks of women undergoing dangerous and illegal procedures, which can put their life in danger, and it has been shown in various contexts that legal and non-restricted access to abortion saves lives. Therefore, in enforcing time limitations, policies potentially harm individuals in the process of promoting the notion of life. It also brings us back to the core debate of choice; a woman’s right to make informed decisions about her own body should arguably not have a cut-off point.

The current UK law on abortion as it stands is oppressive and archaic. Whilst decriminalisation would not fully ensure safe access for all, it would go some way in placing women’s choice and rights at the centre of the debate, as well as increasing safe access to services.

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