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Abortion In England & Wales Is Under Attack, Yet Again

Photo: Getty Images.
Abortion is essential healthcare according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). It’s the difference between a woman or person with a uterus having autonomy over their body, over their life, their future, and being condemned to carrying pregnancies which, for many reasons, could cause them harm. 
You might think that the debate about whether abortion should be accessible in England and Wales is over. You might know a little bit about the 1967 Abortion Act and assume there’s nothing to worry about. England isn’t Ireland, America or Poland, where abortion has very recently been severely restricted, after all. 
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Well, think again. 

What amendments have been made to the Criminal Justice Bill?

Once again, access to abortion in England and Wales is being threatened with restriction by some MPs. 
Two Conservative MPs have made amendments to the government’s Criminal Justice Bill which seek to limit access to abortion for those who need it. 
One amendment — catchily called NC15 -— which was submitted by the Conservative MP for Eastbourne, Caroline Ansell, is calling for the time limit on abortion to be reduced. At present, women and people with wombs can access abortion up to 24 weeks into their pregnancy. 
The other — named NC34 — which was submitted by the Conservative MP for North Somerset, Liam Fox, seeks to make it illegal for doctors to perform an abortion after 24 weeks when a diagnosis of Down syndrome has been made. 
Experts, such as the Royal College of Gynaecologists and Obstetricians (RCOG), are so concerned about this potential threat to abortion that they have written to members of parliament urging them to oppose the amendments when the Criminal Justice Bill next appears in parliament. 
The bill is currently in what’s known as the “report stages” and will be back in parliament tomorrow (15th May). After that, it will go to a final vote, soon after these are completed. When that happens, British MPs will face the biggest vote on abortion rights since 2008, when MPs voted on the number of weeks into a pregnancy that it should be allowed. 
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This time, not only will there be a vote on the amendments above which could reduce time limits. There will be a vital vote that could move abortion once and for all out of criminal law in England and Wales (this has already happened in Scotland and Northern Ireland). 
The Labour MP for Walthamstow, Stella Creasy and Dame Diana Johnson, the Labour MP for Kingston Upon Hull North, have been campaigning for MPs across the House of Commons to use the Criminal Justice Bill to decriminalise abortion and not to further restrict it. 
They have tabled two amendments to the bill which would achieve this: NC1 and NC2. 
If they succeed, no person who buys abortion pills online or doctor who administers an abortion could ever be prosecuted. 
There can be no doubt that the report stages of the Criminal Justice Bill are a crucial moment for the future of reproductive rights in England and Wales. 
The RCOG have warned that there is “no clinical justification for reducing the time limit on abortion.”
The expert organisation has also stressed that there are many reasons why “women may need abortions beyond 22 weeks including for fetal anomaly, their health issues, and serious personal issues which impact their ability to continue a pregnancy.”
Added to that, the RCOG says that “a diagnosis of Down’s syndrome should not be a reason to stop providing abortion care for women” after 24 weeks. 
Heidi Stewart, Chief Executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) told Refinery29 these amendments were part of a “coordinated Trans-Atlantic attack on abortion rights.” 
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“Fuelled by the reversal of Roe v Wade, American-backed anti-abortion organisations have increased their spend, attacks, and influence considerably in the UK in the last four years. NC15 and NC34 are a reflection of the weaponisation of abortion rights and are the biggest attacks on abortion rights in England and Wales in recent history,” she said. 
It’s important to note that “late” abortions — that’s those carried out after 12 weeks — are less common than “early” abortions. When they do take place, there is often a serious medical reason. 

NHS waiting times for abortions are increasing

Waiting times for abortion are also increasing, meaning that people in some parts of the country are waiting more than three weeks for a surgical procedure. 
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines state that patients should get an assessment within a week of a request and procedures should be completed within a week of that assessment.
However, this is not always happening. Reducing the limit from 24 to 22 weeks could mean that some people find themselves beyond the upper limit for accessing abortion if waiting times continue to rise. 
The specialist doctors behind the letter have described the amendments as “alarming” and said they could have “a catastrophic impact on the care” that medical professionals are legally allowed to provide.
“This goes against best practice guidance and basic medical care decision-making,” they added. 
Abortion is what’s known as a “matter of conscience” in parliament. This means that MPs, regardless of their political party, are always given a free vote. 
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As a result, votes on abortion law can go in any direction. 

Abortion in England remains part of criminal law

Part of the problem abortion providers face in England and Wales is that, unlike in Northern Ireland and Scotland, abortion remains part of criminal law. 
When the 1967 Abortion Act was passed, it made abortion legal in certain circumstances: when two doctors had decided that continuing with the pregnancy would risk physical or mental injury to the pregnant person and their existing children and, in the case of pregnancies over 24 weeks, when two doctors believe that termination is necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to the mother, or if not doing so would be to risk her life, or that if the child were born it would suffer a serious disability.
Experts such as the RCOG and BPAS argue that abortion should be completely decriminalised and brought entirely into the realm of medicine, not criminal law. 
According to the World Health Organisation, abortion is vital healthcare. It should be regulated as such, they say. 
Since 2022, at least six women have been taken to court and several have been investigated for allegedly ending their pregnancies outside the legal requirements covering abortion. 
Before that, just three women were prosecuted. 
This is thought to be an unintended consequence of the government’s decision to allow women to access abortion care over the phone during the pandemic — also known as telemedicine. 
Decriminalisation isn’t about making it possible for anyone to terminate a pregnancy whenever or wherever they like, it’s about making sure that anyone who needs to have an abortion has the correct medical support regardless of why they are choosing not to remain pregnant.
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Abortion has been legal since 1967. It should no longer be criminal.
Stewart concluded that “MPs have a clear choice when the Criminal Justice Bill returns to the House. They can take one step forward by supporting Dame Diana Johnson MP’s amendment NC1 and ending the threat of police investigations, prosecutions, and prison time for women who have an abortion. Or they can take two leaps back and strip some of our most vulnerable women of choice over their own bodies by supporting NC15 and NC34.”
Restricting abortion in Britain would be unconscionable. Nobody should be forced to go through a pregnancy that they don’t want to or cannot endure. Experts agree: the only path forward is full decriminalisation. 
When the Criminal Justice Bill makes it back to the House of Commons for its third and final reading MPs face a simple choice between progression and regression.
A vote for decriminalisation would be a vote in favour of moving move abortion, once and for all, into the realm of vital healthcare, making sure that there are no more traumatic prosecutions. A vote for anything else would be an archaic and inhumane step back in time.

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