Why We’re Campaigning To Change Abortion Law

At some point in their lives, before the age of 45, one in three women will have an abortion. Just like pregnancy itself, the need to terminate one is a fact of life. More than this, being able to access safe, free and legal abortion services should you need to is acknowledged to be a basic human right for women and pregnant people. 
Since 1967, abortion has been legal in England, Scotland and Wales because of the Abortion Act, a victory that was hard-fought and won by campaigners. For those of us who have grown up in Britain since, access to abortion is something we have (for the most part) been able to take for granted. 
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However, if the last few years in Western politics have taught us anything, it’s that you can never take progress for granted. In the US, abortion rights have been under attack since Trump’s presidency began. We’ve marched against this in Britain, wearing pink pussy hats. We’ve shared memes about Alabama, expressing outrage at the imposition of draconian laws on women by men. 
So why have we failed to apply the same scrutiny to things at home? Anti-abortion protests outside our abortion clinics are increasing, with women and clinic staff being forced to face gauntlets of protestors holding vigils, praying and holding placards bearing graphic photos of foetuses in order to make appointments. 
Perhaps because abortion is legal here, we’ve been lulled into a false sense of security. We’ve rarely had cause to question that legislation, to ask whether it could be better, whether a law from the late '60s is still catering to the needs of women today? After all, unless you live in Northern Ireland, the chances are that if you’ve ever wanted or needed an abortion, you’ve been able to get it.
But once you start asking questions you’ll find that the 1967 Act isn’t quite doing the job it could or should. When it passed through parliament just over 50 years ago, concessions were made. More than this, the 1967 Act is actually underpinned by a far older piece of legislation: the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act. Because of it, abortion is still technically a criminal offence, which means it is treated as a legal matter and not a health issue in the eyes of the law. 
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Hadn’t heard about this Victorian law before? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. We surveyed over 1,000 Refinery29 readers from across the UK about abortion. 
Ninety percent didn’t think that abortion was a criminal offence in England and Wales and 71% had never heard of the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act. 
The 1967 Abortion Act legalised abortion under certain conditions but it did not overturn the 1861 Act, specifically sections 58 and 59, which mean that abortion is still – technically – a criminal offence. The 1861 Act reads:
"Every woman, being with child, who, with intent to procure her own miscarriage, shall unlawfully administer to herself any poison... or unlawfully use any instrument... shall be liable ... to be kept in penal servitude for life."
The fact that the 1967 Act is underpinned by this law means that abortion is only lawful if two doctors agree that continuing with a pregnancy would affect a woman’s mental or physical health. 
This puts a strain on services and can cause delays to waiting times. It is also why there are restrictions as to where abortions can happen. 
In theory, as things stand, any woman who ends her own pregnancy in Britain could be prosecuted under laws which were created long before women were even given the vote. If a woman were to buy abortion pills online because, for whatever reason, she didn’t or couldn’t get to see a medical professional, she would be committing a criminal act which is punishable by life imprisonment. 
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It’s time to ask whether this is really appropriate. 
Eighty-four percent of Refinery29 readers said they think that there is still a stigma attached to having an abortion in the UK. More than this, 63% said they think that abortion services in England and Wales could be easier to access and 56% said that they think women have to travel too far to access abortion services. When it comes to anti-abortion protestors, 56% said they think they’re affecting women’s access to clinics. 
Anyone worth listening to on this issue – the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, Marie Stopes and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists – agrees that the law needs to be updated. That’s why we at Refinery29 are campaigning for the complete decriminalisation of abortion across the UK. 
The inner machinations of politics are often opaque and legislation is complex. Understanding knotty policy processes is complex but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. When we do, we can better see how things work, how they could be better. Abortion is a medical and not a criminal issue, it’s time the legislation reflected that. 
So please sign our petition and help us change the law to fix abortion provision once and for all.
Richard Bentley, Managing Director for Marie Stopes UK said:

"Abortion care needs to be taken out of criminal law in the UK. No other healthcare provision sits within criminal law in this way, and there is no reason why consensual women’s healthcare should have any criminal sanction.
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"One in three women in the UK will have an abortion in her lifetime. But despite being the most common medical procedure in the UK, the current law continues to stigmatise and criminalise both the women requesting abortions and the healthcare professionals that provide them."
Professor Lesley Regan, President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said:
"I am pleased that the Council of our College has voted in support of removing criminal sanctions associated with abortion. Having a formal position on decriminalisation will enable the College to usefully contribute to the debate surrounding what a post decriminalisation landscape might look like.
"I want to be clear that decriminalisation does not mean deregulation and abortion services should be subject to regulatory and professional standards, in line with other medical procedures. I strongly believe that the College has a responsibility to protect women’s health by ensuring access to this key healthcare service."
Rachael Clarke, Public Affairs and Advocacy Manager at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service said:
"In 2019, it should be clear that abortion is a healthcare matter, not a criminal one. However, thanks to an 1861 law, the UK is currently host to one of the harshest criminal regimes for abortion in the world, threatening life in prison for any woman who ends her own pregnancy without legal authorisation. 
"This means that there are restrictions placed not only on women but how healthcare professionals can provide care. The law from 1861 means that women can’t go to their GP for an abortion, can’t have a home visit from a qualified nurse or doctor if they’re unable to leave the house, and if they buy pills online they’re risking a life sentence. This is what decriminalisation would mean.
"Decriminalisation does not mean deregulation, it means abortion would be subject to the same stringent and comprehensive healthcare laws that govern all other women’s healthcare procedures, with appropriate safeguarding protocols, counselling, clinical safety standards and the need for informed consent. It would make sure that abortion care is finally treated as the healthcare it is."
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