Voices: It’s only a matter of time before abortion rights are sacrificed in the UK

·5 min read

When the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade earlier this year, many women in the UK breathed a quiet sigh of relief through the tears. Many believe that our rights are safe over here – and while the US seems to be going full-on Handmaid’s Tale, in the UK, we still value the lives of women.

I wasn’t so optimistic – and I’m more convinced by the day that our reproductive rights are set in sugar rather than stone: at first glance they appear solid, but really they’re very easily dissolved.

For a start, in the UK we’re still working under antiquated laws, designed to be punitive to women and to curtail reproductive freedom. As Olivia Petter’s feature for The Independent explains, abortion legislation in this country is widely misunderstood. Petter’s report also shows just how unfit for purpose –and brutal – those laws are. In many recent cases involving vulnerable women, justice looks a lot like gender-based violence.

Think I’m being dramatic? Another miserable, angry feminist taking everything to extremes? Then consider some of the recent cases involving vulnerable women already experiencing domestic abuse – and minors who haven’t even had an abortion in the first place.

According to a report in The Observer, only last year a 15-year-old girl was subjected to a criminal investigation after her pregnancy ended in an early stillbirth. After a year of an intrusive digital search of text messages and her online search history, police dropped the case when the coroner concluded that the pregnancy terminated due to natural causes. There’s something seriously wrong here, isn’t there? The ways these laws are applied seem to be oddly vindictive and horribly damaging. Could it be that the law is just too damn old?

The minor in question was investigated under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which states that: “Every woman, being with child, who, with intent to procure her own miscarriage, shall unlawfully administer to herself any poison or other noxious thing, or shall unlawfully use any instrument or other means whatsoever with the like intent […] shall be guilty of felony, and being convicted thereof shall be liable to be kept in penal servitude for life.”

This 19th-century act seems to be anchored in misogyny – in the 21st century, do we really need to criminalise children who’ve gone through the trauma of first being pregnant and then experiencing stillbirth? It seems utterly horrific to me.

OK, you may think, but even with the best will in the world, bad things happen occasionally. A one-off case is no indication of a broken system. Well, I wish that case were an anomaly, but, as Petter’s report shows, abortion laws in the UK continue to be at odds with women’s welfare.

Take the case of “Laura” (not her real name), for example. Laura spent two years in prison for having an illegal abortion. Laura, who was in an abusive relationship and was considered “vulnerable and easily manipulated”, felt pressured into pleading guilty. She told The Sunday Times: “The prosecution said if I didn’t plead guilty, they would charge me with child destruction, and I would likely go to prison for life.”

So, why did this woman have an illegal abortion when terminations are legal in the UK? Because, as Petter explains, according to the 1967 Abortion Act, abortion is still a criminal act in England, Scotland and Wales. “Technically, it’s still illegal, but criminal charges cannot be applied so long as a certain set of requirements are met. In order to avoid criminal charges, an abortion must take place within 23 weeks and six days of gestation.

“Two doctors must agree that continuing the pregnancy would be harmful to the mother’s physical or mental health, or that of her existing children, or that there is a risk the foetus would be born seriously disabled. The only exception to the time limit for abortions is if there is evidence of significant risk to the mother’s life, or evidence of a fatal foetal abnormality.”

In Laura’s case, she was unable to demonstrate that she met those requirements. She was controlled by her partner, who told her that she couldn’t go to the doctor and had to take pills bought online instead. Laura was much further along in her pregnancy than she had thought and she gave birth to a 30-week-old foetus. In this case, the law acted as an extension of the abuser. These are horrific stories and they’re not as rare as they should be.

There’s a serious issue when the experts, the ones who really know what’s going on, the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), all call for abortion to be decriminalised in the UK.

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In a statement, RCOG said: “The RCOG supports the removal of criminal sanctions associated with abortion in the UK. We believe the procedure should be subject to regulatory and professional standards, in line with other medical procedures, rather than criminal sanctions.

“Abortion services should be regulated. However, abortion – for women, doctors and other healthcare professionals – should be treated as a medical, rather than a criminal, issue.” So why aren’t we listening?

Desperate, vulnerable women and girls face punishment through the application of archaic abortion laws designed to discipline women and control their bodies and choices. If we truly valued the welfare of women, we’d update the UK’s abortion legislation, especially in light of events in the US. The fact that we haven’t tells us a terrible truth: our reproductive rights are not nearly as secure as we might believe.