Abortion Is Technically Still A Criminal Offence In England Because Of A Law Dating Back To 1861
The Debrief: Did you know that abortion law in the United Kingdom is based on the Victorian 1861 Offences Against the Person Act which was created long before women were even awarded the vote...
In 1861 Abraham Lincoln was the newly sworn in President of the United States, this was also the year that the American Civil War began. To give you a visual, that’s not long after The Revenant was set. In Britain we didn’t yet have an NHS and we were still going through the Industrial Revolution to the extent that steam power was pretty radical.
Did you know that abortion law in the United Kingdom is based on the Victorian 1861 Offences Against the Person Act (and equivalent common law offences in Scotland)?
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) has just launched a campaign, ‘We Trust Women’, which they hope will lead to abortion being decriminalised under UK law. They are being supported by the Royal College of Midwives, the Fawcett Society and End Violence Against Women Coalition, among others.
The 1967 Abortion Act, legalised abortion under certain conditions. However, it did not over turn the 1861 Act, it only made abortion lawful if two doctors could agree that continuing with a pregnancy would affect a woman’s mental or physical health and it did not extend to Northern Ireland, where abortion is still illegal except in extreme circumstances, at all.
In Northern Ireland two women currently face prosecution because they bought abortion pills online. And in England, just last December, a woman was jailed for two and a half years in Shildon, County Durham after trying to terminate her own pregnancy.
Natalie Towers, 24, bought abortion pills on the Internet in order to induce a miscarriage while she was 32-34 weeks pregnant (abortion is legal in the UK upto 24 weeks, with sign off from a doctor. It is only legal after that if there is arisk to the mother's life or in cases of foetal abnormalities) . The judge in her case at Newcastle Crown Court, Mr Justice Jay, gave her a custodial sentence, saying ‘this offence does involve extinguishing a life about to begin.’
While her defence maintained that she did know how far along she was, the judge said ‘the law in this country is quite clear…it was open to you to seek termination at any stage before 24 weeks…’
While it’s unclear why Towers did not go to the doctors before 24 weeks, this case surely highlights the draconian nature of the application of the law in what surely, if it is anything, is a mental health issue, not a criminal one.
The BPAS said that today, in the 21st century, women should be trusted to make their own decisions about their pregnancies. The point out that across the country a woman who ends her own pregnancy, at any point during it, can, in theory, be sentenced to life imprisonment under laws which were created long before women were even awarded the vote.
As things stand, an abortion in England cannot be given simply because a woman goes to her doctor to request one, two medical officials must sign off on it. This can delay treatment for women who are sure about their decision and there is no clinical benefit for it. It’s simply another layer of admin, which, ultimately, implies that women cannot be trusted to make their own decisions about their bodies.
In Northern Ireland a doctor, midwife or nurse who provides what would be deemed a safe abortion could face prison.
The Bpas argue that all of this is putting doctors off from training and specialising in this area and also report that, although it is rare, there are cases of women being turned down for abortions in England (where the 1967 law applies) because doctors won’t treat them for personal reasons. A spokesperson told The Debrief,
‘In recent years we have seen increasing efforts by those opposed to women’s choice calling for the prosecution of doctors involved in abortion care – not for providing substandard care – but for not filling in the legal paperwork that is unique to abortion correctly. Doctors can, in principle, go to prison for this. We know this understandably makes doctors jittery and anxious about entering this field of women’s healthcare, whether it’s as GP signing the paperwork or as a doctor providing the treatment.’
Additionally, because abortion pills, like the ones Towers purchased, are becoming more easily available online the Bpas says that more and more women will be at risk of prosecution if they buy them.
Decriminalising abortion would, at the end of the day, enable women to avoid multiple appointments, delays and unnecessary waiting times. Those who need an abortion would also be able to take the pills at home, as opposed to in a clinic before rushing home in time, before the medically induced miscarriage starts happening. This is nothing radical, in fact it’s recommended and deemed safe by the World Health Organisation.
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.’
Currently the UK is trailing behind countries like Canada and Australia where abortion has been completely decriminalised. Our abortion laws are outdated and it’s time they caught up. It is shameful that Natalie Towers was handed a prison sentence for inducing an abortion in 2015.
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