Decriminalise abortions rather than prosecute women, doctors warn

·4 min read
Pro-choice supporters - Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media via Getty Images
Pro-choice supporters - Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Leading medics are urging the Government to decriminalise abortion after cases emerged of women facing prosecution.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists is leading the call, highlighting at least 17 investigations over the last eight years.

The organisation had already joined 66 bodies urging the Director of Prosecutions to stop a number of cases going ahead.

Ministers urged to decriminalise

Now it has gone further, urging ministers to decriminalise terminations, meaning women could not face criminal sanctions for undergoing abortions without the certification of two medics.

It follows a number of cases, including one woman in Oxford who self-administered misoprostol in 2021 in an effort to end her pregnancy.

In another case, which emerged earlier this month, a woman was arrested in hospital and kept in a police cell for 36 hours, on suspicion of having had an illegal abortion, after suffering a stillbirth, medics said.

Another, in the first weeks of the pandemic, involved a woman who took “pills by post” when she was 28 weeks pregnant.

The legal limit for abortion is 24 weeks and the postal system, introduced in the pandemic, is supposed to adhere to a 10-week limit.

The system was due to expire this summer, having been introduced as a short-term measure.

Return to previous rules

Earlier this year, ministers announced plans to return to previous rules, which required women undergoing a termination to have a consultation in person with a doctor first.

It followed concerns from some critics that the system was ripe for abuse, and could see women coerced into abortions.

But the Government was forced to back down, after a free vote by MPs who voted to keep the “pills-by-post” system.

Although the 1967 Abortion Act legalises terminations in England, Wales and Scotland up to 23 weeks, neither the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act nor the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 were repealed.

This means women who have unregulated abortions or try to terminate their pregnancy without medical supervision can face up to life imprisonment.

‘Abortions without fear’

Dr Edward Morris, president of the Royal College, said women should be free to have an abortion without fear of prosecution.

He added: “Women who may face charges are often in desperate or vulnerable situations, and the current legislation may further deter them from seeking the support and aftercare they need. It is our belief that prosecuting a woman for ending their pregnancy will never be in the public interest.

“To ensure that all women and girls are provided with support without fear of prosecution, abortion must be decriminalised, while remaining subject to the regulatory and professional standards of all other medical procedures.”

Such changes would ensure women who had suffered a miscarriage could not be investigated for criminal activity, he added.

“Decriminalising abortion is an act to protect the reproductive rights of women and girls, and prevent causing further harm through cruel investigations.”

The Royal College has today issued a joint statement with the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (FSRH), calling for decriminalisation.

‘Without fear of penalty’

Dr Asha Kasliwal, president of the FSRH, said: “All women should be able to access abortion services easily and without fear of penalty or harassment. Decriminalising abortion will help to remove stigma, remove fear and reiterate to women that they have the right to control their own sexual and reproductive health choices.

“Abortion care is highly regulated and should solely be subject to appropriate professional standards in line with any other healthcare procedures, not criminal sanctions.”

Earlier this year, the British Medical Association (BMA) said Britain should offer free abortions to women from the US who are unable to secure them.

The vote by BMA followed the US Supreme Court to overturn the Roe v Wade ruling, ending US women’s legal right to have abortions.

International patients

Currently, overseas patients are able to have abortions in the UK but are charged a fee.

Around 4,000 of the 80,000 women the British Pregnancy Advisory Service provides abortions to every year are international patients.

Those whose governments do not fund this service are charged between £480 and £1,510 in total for a consultation and the procedure, depending on whether it is medical – using tablets – or surgical and how many weeks pregnant the women are.

But in an emergency debate on the issue in June, the BMA agreed doctors would lobby to “support the provision of free and safe abortion care to all nationals seeking this in the UK, without subjecting them to the overseas patient upfront tariff, regardless of borders”.

Members also agreed to publicly condemn the US Supreme Court’s decision and to support doctors in the US who provided abortions.