Continuing our IWD 2023 series, Fatima Irfan makes the case for the right to abortion to be better protected in UK law.
Globally on the 8th March, we celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women whilst reflecting on women who are currently suffering from a restriction of their freedom of speech, reproductive rights and more importantly, their access to a safe abortion. After the overturning of Roe V Wade nine months ago, we must look at the role that the UK plays in building on to the erosion of women’s rights.
The Guardian published an article illustrating how the UK has overtaken Canada, Germany and Australia to become one of the world’s most socially liberal nations towards divorce and abortion, the latest wave of a global study has revealed. These practices are more accepting within society with 47% of the survey results arguing for the acceptance of safe and fair abortions. Yet the legislation currently in the UK, does not match the ideals of the majority.
MSI Reproductive Choices, an NGO advocating for contraception and safe abortion in 37 countries around the world, recently published an article about the laws in the UK surrounding the right to have an abortion. The 1967 Abortion Act states that an abortion is legal is it is performed by a registered medical practitioner and that it is authorised by two doctors, acting in good faith on one of the following grounds-
(a) that the pregnancy has not exceeded its twenty-fourth week and that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family; or
(b) that the termination is necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman; or
(c) that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk to the life of the pregnant woman, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated; or
(d) that there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.
However, one can easily critique the Abortion Act. If the criteria for two doctors approving the abortion are not met, women all over the UK can and still are being actively prosecuted in the UK for having an abortion, the most extreme punishment being a prison settlement. A 24 year old woman in Oxford was accused of procuring abortion by unlawfully administering Misoprostol with intent to abort her unborn child and could face life imprisonment. Abortion is still criminalised in England, Scotland and Wales and next to impossible to receive in Northern Ireland (despite being decriminalised in 2019).
It is certainly concerning to note that the current Conservative government refuses to speak on this matter. Abortion providers have warned that access to abortion is currently at risk due to the PM, Rishi Sunak, taking an “anti-abortion stance”. Labour analysis of voting records concludes that the inner cabinet composed of the Prime Minister, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and Chancellor have abstained or voted against all English abortion legislation since 2015. It is frightening to think such rudimentary human rights are still up for “debate” in 2023.
This stance can be found throughout the cabinet with more than a 1/3 voting against early medical abortion at home to be made concrete. More than a quarter of the cabinet actually voted against introducing a “buffer zone” which would ultimately prevent graphic signs, filming and general harassment of women and doctors outside abortion clinics.
Therefore, it is evident to conclude that the current government has not and most likely will not be issuing any statement or legislation in regards to access to abortion. The manifesto mentioned no matter of abortion nor reproductive rights which could show their negligence or ignorance toward this vital subject affecting 50.57% of the population in the UK.
On the other side of the Commons, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have pledged to bring in buffer zones outside clinics and committed to decriminalising abortion to advance the rights of women. MP Stella Creasy has said that she will aim to table an amendment to the proposed British Bill of Rights to recognise women’s access to abortion as an fundamental human right. Ms Creasy added that “bringing in a human rights framework would inevitably progress the argument that healthcare is not a criminal matter” when writing to the Independent regarding her decision to back this bill.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service welcomed the respective commitments from both Labour and the Liberal Democrats. “We welcome Labour's manifesto commitment to decriminalise abortion in England and Wales. BPAS has been campaigning alongside a coalition of medical bodies and women’s charities for the decriminalisation of abortion, to protect women from the threat of prosecution and allow the development of a truly patient-centre red service.
The future of the right to abortion seems as though it is only an American-centred issue. However, although the issues are different to those in the US, we must remain vigilant in regards to an imminent legal threat to the current status quo. With the Conservative government appearing unconcerned about reproductive rights to women, we must not remain complacent either.
Below is a link to sign a petition by Refinery29 to keep the pressure on MP’s and help update the current legislation to fix rights of an abortion once and for all.
Fatima Irfan is a Labour and Young Fabian member in the Greater London area. She is currently completing her undergraduate degree in Politics and International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
She is highly interested in trade unionism, institutional reform and women’s rights and social justice.
Image by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash