Abortion Is More Under Threat In Britain Than You Think

Photographed by Kristine Romano.
How much do you know about abortion law in Britain? No, really, how much do you know about it?
This is a serious question. 
Do you know that even though abortion is legal (only if it is signed off by two doctors and carried out under certain circumstances and within a particular time limit) because of the Abortion Act 1967, it is still technically a criminal offence here? 
Do you know that this is because of a Victorian law called the Offences Against the Person Act 1861? 
Do you know that not one but two women face potential imprisonment in Britain right now for having an abortion because of that 1861 law? One of them is a 24-year-old woman from Oxford. She is currently on trial for taking the drug involved in early medical abortions to end an unwanted or unviable pregnancy in Oxford on 27th January last year. The charge she faces carries a maximum life sentence. 
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Do you know that the British government just quietly removed commitments to abortion and sexual health rights from an international pact on freedom of belief and gender equality? References to repealing discriminatory laws that threaten women's "sexual and reproductive health and rights" and "bodily autonomy" have recently been removed from a statement published on the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) website.
Now you know. Now you know that abortion in Britain is not as accessible as it should be. Now you know that it is still, in the eyes of the law, a criminal and not a health matter. Now you know that abortion is more restricted in Britain than you previously thought. Now you know that a person’s right to bodily autonomy can never be taken for granted, that you can never be complacent about the right not to be pregnant. 

Under current law, any woman who ends a pregnancy outside the terms of the 1967 Abortion Act faces up to life imprisonment under a law passed in 1861.

katherine o'brien, BPAS
As I write this list, this litany of anti-abortion information, it is just four weeks since the US Supreme Court voted to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling and restrict access to abortion across America. 
In that time, countless women and people with wombs have shared their abortion stories on social media. Abortion, they shout, is normal. One in four people with wombs will have one at some point in their lives. It shouldn’t matter why they need one – they aren’t ready for children, they don’t want children, they have to terminate the pregnancy for medical reasons, they have been sexually assaulted – their body is theirs and theirs alone. They should be able to do with it what they please. 
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But who is listening? Do cries into the social media void change the minds of people in power with anti-abortion views? Do they change legislation?
What has gone on in Westminster since the US Supreme Court’s decision suggests that they do not. These cries fall not on deaf ears but on wilfully unlistening ears. 
In a debate about the Roe v. Wade decision in the House of Commons, Conservative backbench MP Danny Kruger said that he doesn’t think women have the "right to bodily autonomy" when it comes to abortion. 
Abortion is what’s known as an "issue of conscience" in Britain’s parliament, which means that MPs are allowed to vote according to their moral, ethical or religious beliefs. Were there ever a vote on abortion rights here, a pro-abortion result could not be guaranteed. The likes of Kruger could vote in accordance with their own belief systems. 
For that reason and following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, Labour MP Stella Creasy called on parliament to make abortion a human right in the British Bill of Rights. The government’s response? Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab argued that there's "not a strong case for change".
Even as the government was imploding in the run-up to Boris Johnson’s resignation, Conservative MP Nadine Dorries argued that the legal cut-off point for pregnancy terminations in the UK – which is 24 weeks – should be reduced by one month to 20 weeks. This goes against all medical advice.
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It doesn’t stop at Westminster. 
Since the Roe v. Wade decision was announced, both the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) and MSI Reproductive Choices have told me that anti-abortion "protestors" have increased their activity outside abortion clinics across the country. 
At an MSI clinic in Brixton they turn up regularly and hand out leaflets imploring people not to have abortions. At a BPAS clinic in Finsbury Park they have a megaphone through which they beg people going into the clinic not to terminate pregnancies; people leaving the clinic after their appointments are chased with empty prams. 
The BPAS clinic’s treatment manager Vikki Webb told me, as four "protestors" stood outside her clinic praying with rosary beads, that it was the third incident in just one week. She has had clients in tears. The megaphone is so loud that she can hear it inside the clinic. 
Katherine O’Brien is an associate director at BPAS. She wants people to know that the situation in Britain is serious. It was serious before the Roe v. Wade decision. 
"Over the last year we have seen a number of clinics targeted by anti-abortion protests for the first time, indicating that this incredibly harmful activity is spreading," she explains. "We know that anti-abortion activists in the UK have very close ties with their US counterparts and will emulate their tactics in the hope of achieving the kind of 'success' they see in the revocation of Roe v. Wade. We are witnessing the Americanisation of anti-abortion activity in the UK and we can now very clearly see where it leads: to the rolling back of women’s rights."
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"Our staff are dedicated to providing safe, compassionate treatment to women during what can be a difficult time in their lives," O’Brien continues. "It is outrageous that they face harassment when trying to enter their place of work, and we know how heartbreaking it is for our staff to see women in a profound state of distress because of the protesters. We have had women in tears, women experiencing panic attacks. This cannot continue."
Did you know that money from religious groups in America funds the anti-abortion groups who stage these so-called "protests" outside clinics in Britain? Now you know. 
Did you know that Penny Mordaunt, a Conservative MP who was recently eliminated from the race to be Britain’s next prime minister, has been linked to a PR guru who has worked with an evangelical anti-abortion group called the Christian Medical Fellowship? Now you know. 
For too long, abortion has been treated as a "controversial" subject in Britain. It is not. Abortion is a fact of life. It is, according to the World Health Organization, essential healthcare. It is a bedrock of equality, of a human’s right to do what they want and need to do with the body in which they must move through the world, to decide how their future should be shaped. 
And yet the right to abortion is far more fragile than many people in Britain dare acknowledge. Why? Because doing so throws an ugly fact into sharp relief: a small but influential group of people who call themselves "pro life" don’t think that women and people with wombs should be able to choose what happens to their bodies. 
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What does it really mean to be "pro life"? It means you believe that an embryo or a foetus is not only alive but that its rights supersede those of the person keeping it alive. It means that you believe a person with a womb is an incubator. It means that you do not respect their life. 
So we won’t call them "pro life" here. We’ll call them anti-abortion. The majority of the British public support the right to abortion. Yet the anti-abortion lobby has influence in Britain. So much influence that after they staged a campaign to flood a consultation on allowing early at-home medical abortion to continue after the coronavirus lockdowns, government ministers nearly took it away. They were stopped by MPs in the House of Commons who voted to keep it. 
When abortion rights are threatened, people take to social media to defend them. They offer up their own abortion stories as glimmering votives, imploring politicians to uphold their rights. But as these stories are told, they confirm one thing: the right to autonomy is fragile. It is dependent on proving that you are deserving of it. On being able to justify your right to it – to your life, to your body.

At a time when abortion rights are being rolled back in the US, we need to send a clear signal to the rest of the world that access to abortion care should be a human right.

katherine o'brien, bpas
Medical experts agree. A cluster of cells the size of a blueberry is not a life. It is the promise of a life, dependent on its carrier for survival. Their life is a life, their life is what begets other life. 
But British law doesn’t reflect that. "Under current law, any woman who ends a pregnancy outside the terms of the 1967 Abortion Act faces up to life imprisonment under a law passed in 1861, and we know that every year women face criminal investigations because police suspect they may have broken this archaic law," concludes O’Brien. "At a time when abortion rights are being rolled back in the US, we need to send a clear signal to the rest of the world that access to abortion care should be a human right, and that no civilised country in the 21st century should punish women for making decisions about their own bodies and their own lives."
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In Britain, we think of people going on trial for helping others have abortions as a distant problem. We think of the Polish activist who is currently on trial. We do not think, often, of the women facing trial here. Perhaps because we don’t like to think that, under the wrong circumstances, it could happen to anyone who orders abortion pills online. 
So now that you know abortion is still a criminal offence in Britain, what will you do? Will you tweet about it? Will you Instagram? Will you do nothing? Will you stay complacent? 
Or will you do what the anti-abortion lobby does and flood the inboxes of those with enough power to decide what happens to the right to support new life? The choice is yours. But if you think the Roe v. Wade decision could never happen in Britain, think again.

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