Despite the media attention gifted to the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, and the persistence of anti-abortion protesters on our streets, 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act, the groundbreaking legislation that made abortion available across England, Wales and Scotland. However, while abortion is common – one in three women in the UK will have one; nearly 200,000 are carried out each year – and many of us may consider our right to an abortion a given, a shocking (and worrying) proportion of us know far less than we think we do about the ins and outs of abortion provision.
Thankfully a new BBC documentary, Abortion on Trial, delves deeper into the issue than we're used to and weighs up whether the old legislation is fit for purpose. It also sets the record straight on some of the lesser-known facts. For one, terminating a pregnancy is technically still a crime and can land women in prison unless certain conditions are met – two doctors must ensure the requirements of the Act are met and then sign it off. While the campaign to completely decriminalise abortion has gained traction and looks increasingly likely to succeed, a poll commissioned by the show found that more than two-thirds of people (69%) believe it's already completely legal on demand if a woman wants one. Just 13% of the 2002 adults asked were correct in thinking it was an offence that could lead to jail.
Veteran journalist and presenter Anne Robinson brings together nine people – eight women who've had abortions and one strongly anti-choice man – to stay at her country house for the weekend and hash out some of the thornier issues, from time limits, to abortions based on disability, to sex-selective abortions and repeat abortions; even whether or not men should have a say. Robinson brings a unique perspective to the issue, having covered the introduction of the Act as a young reporter on Fleet Street and had an abortion herself as a young, recently married woman the year after it came into force. It's only the only second time she's spoken publicly about the experience – the first being a brief section in her 2001 autobiography – and her vulnerability paves the way for her houseguests to share their own stories.
Coming from a Catholic family, Robinson recalls feeling terrified and "very, very lonely" in the aftermath of the procedure. "I was ashamed of what I had done... I have tried very hard not to think about it," she says, adding that she still carries shame about the decision nearly 50 years on, particularly now that she has a daughter and grandchildren. Importantly, though, she hasn't "allowed herself to regret" the decision. She makes the obvious and important, yet sometimes forgotten, point that it's possible to be pro-choice and still feel sadness about your own abortion.
The basis of our current abortion legislation is a Victorian-era law, passed when women didn't even have the vote. Not only does the Act require the approval of two doctors, it also renders it illegal for a woman to end a pregnancy using pills – known as a medical abortion – in her own home (and makes any doctor who helps her equally culpable). Two women have been jailed in recent years for using pills bought online and 375 doses were seized in England, Wales and Scotland in 2016, compared with just five in 2013. The fact that online sales of abortion pills are increasing in Britain suggests women want the option to end their pregnancies on their own terms, without the risk of keeling over in pain in a public place – the case of an agoraphobic woman interviewed on the show only reiterates the importance of this.
Two-thirds of abortions today are medical, requiring two pills to be taken over two days; these must be taken in a clinic or hospital. Abortion on Trial explores this issue in depth, debating whether women should be granted the right to take the pills at home. The group agrees that more aftercare should also be available to women who take them. Women recall bleeding heavily, passing clots and even foetuses on buses and in public toilets due to a lack of aftercare. "It can't be right that women are miscarrying on buses in 2017," Robinson says – a sentiment that's difficult to refute.
The group is pro-choice on the whole, with just two people opposing abortion, and the public opinion poll found that just 3% of British people wouldn't support a woman having an abortion under any circumstance. More than a third (37%), by contrast, said it's always a woman's right to choose and many more said they'd support it under various other circumstances. All of which makes for heartening viewing as a pro-choice feminist. However, as a British woman, one can't feel too satisfied about abortion provision when the same rights aren't extended to our Northern Irish sisters (or those in the Isle of Man, for that matter). The 1967 Act was never extended to the country and abortion remains illegal in the vast majority of circumstances. While huge progress has been made recently – earlier this year, Northern Irish women won the right to free abortions in England – religious conservatism governs national attitudes towards the procedure and we can't help but wonder why women seeking abortion should have to travel overseas. There's an idea for your next documentary, Anne.
Abortion on Trial is on BBC Two tonight at 9pm and is available to watch on the BBC iPlayer for 30 days.