Two Political Parties Have Put Decriminalising Abortion In Their Manifesto

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. We live in an overwhelmingly pro-choice country. According to recent data from NatCen – Britain’s independent social research institute – the overwhelming majority of people support a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy. 
Yet as Refinery29’s #ImACriminal campaign has been working to highlight, abortion is still technically a criminal offence in England and Wales. This is because the 1967 Abortion Act – which legalised abortion for the first time in Britain – is underpinned by a Victorian law: the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act
Advertisement

At some point in their lives, before the age of 45, one in three women will have an abortion.

This means that a woman who ends her own pregnancy could face life imprisonment. Experts such as the British Medical Association (BMA), the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), Marie Stopes and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists all agree that this not only reinforces outdated stigma when it comes to having an abortion, it ideologically underpins a clause in the 1967 Abortion Act which says that abortion is only lawful if two doctors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. 
Two women politicians in particular – Labour MPs Diana Johnson and Stella Creasy – have worked hard to try and do away with Sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Act which criminalise abortion, making it technically a legal matter and not a health issue in the eyes of the law. In March 2017, Johnson won the right to introduce a bill to fully decriminalise abortion in the House of Commons. However, it did not make it into law. 

Sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act criminalise abortion, making it technically a legal matter and not a health issue in the eyes of the law.

As we approach the December general election, however, two of the main political parties have announced that they are putting the decriminalisation of abortion on their manifestos, pledging to sort this out should they be elected. 
Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats – who have also pledged to bring in buffer zones outside clinics to stop anti-abortion protestors harassing women – have committed to decriminalisation. 
Advertisement
The Conservative manifesto, which launched on Sunday, included no mention of the matter and the party did not respond to Refinery29’s request for comment. 
For as long as the 1861 Act affects our abortion laws, women will be undermined. As BPAS has pointed out, it is the reason that abortions must take place in a hospital or at specific clinics, and that a woman who wants one must meet one of the seven criteria that allow abortion. It also means that any woman or clinician who ends a pregnancy outside of the terms of the 1967 Abortion Act can be prosecuted and criminalised, and is the reason that women cannot access abortion pills at their GP. 
This can have serious implications for women who are in abusive relationships and need to find a reason to travel to a specialist clinic, often quite a distance from their home. 
Sweden, Norway and France all have nurse or midwife-led abortion services, so the law in England and Wales is not only lagging behind our European counterparts, it’s over a century out of date. 

Sweden, Norway and France all have nurse or midwife-led abortion services. So the law in England and Wales is not only lagging behind our European counterparts, it's over a century out of date. 

BPAS welcomed the respective commitments from both Labour and the Liberal Democrats. In a statement they said:
"We welcome the Labour Party’s manifesto commitment to decriminalise abortion in England and Wales. Over the last week, the manifesto released by the Liberal Democrats has also included a pledge to decriminalise abortion and legislate for buffer zones around abortion clinics, and the Green Party has pledged to ensure access to legal, safe and affordable abortion services. For many years, 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-centred service. We live in a pro-choice country, and it is right that this is finally reflected within party manifestos."
Advertisement
"We know that MPs from across the House of Commons are supportive of decriminalisation: two previous attempts to decriminalise abortion have gained overwhelming support from MPs from all major political parties in England, Wales and Scotland, in 2017 and 2019 respectively. Public opinion, too, has swelled, with a recent poll revealing just 14% of the public support the current criminal sanctions for abortion. Healthcare bodies including the British Medical Association, the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive healthcare and the Royal Colleges of Midwives, Nursing, GPs and Obstetricians and Gynaecologists all support decriminalisation."
"It is clear the current law is no longer fit for purpose. We look forward to working with MPs from across the house in the next parliament to change it for the better."
Please sign our petition to keep the pressure on politicians and help us change the law to fix abortion provision once and for all.
Advertisement

More from Politics

R29 Original Series