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Commons backs Hull MP's bid to modernise law regulating abortion

Hull North MP Diana Johnson today launched her Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) Bill that aims to decriminalise abortion in England and Wales. 
 
Under Victorian criminal laws dating back to 1861 – before women had the right to vote – abortion remains illegal in England and Wales. A woman who has an abortion and anyone who helps her to have an abortion, unless it falls within the specific conditions of The Abortion Act 1967, currently face a maximum penalty of life imprisonment - the harshest such penalty in Europe. 
 
The Commons voted 172-142 in favour of decriminalisation. 
 
The full text of Diana Johnson MP's speech is printed below:
 

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to regulate the termination of pregnancies by medical practitioners and to repeal certain criminal offences relating to such terminations; and for connected purposes.

In England and Wales, women have a legal route to an abortion through the Abortion Act 1967, introduced by David Steel as a private Member’s Bill, but 50 years on it is right that the House has the chance to address one fundamental issue that the Act did not address. Abortion remains a criminal offence in this country, even if it is carried out early in the term, for the woman who has the abortion and anyone who assists her. Under sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861 and other legislation, termination of a pregnancy carries the maximum sentence of life imprisonment. That is the harshest criminal penalty of any country in Europe, underpinned by a Victorian criminal law passed before women even had the right to vote, let alone sit in this place.

The Abortion Act 1967 did not change the fundamental fact: it merely set out circumstances under which abortion could be legal—for example, the need for two doctors’ signatures that specified conditions have been met, including a time limit now set at 24 weeks and, in exceptional circumstances, the conditions for abortions post 24 weeks. Unlike in other countries, that means that abortion remains illegal except in the limited circumstances in the Act. No other medical procedure is governed by legislation that old or that out of step with clinical developments and changing attitudes.

I want the House to reflect on the following comments from women who have sought help from online organisations to buy abortion tablets—something that no one would have imagined in 1967, let alone 1861—as, in so doing, they are committing criminal offences under the 1861 Act. The first woman says:

“I live in rural England and have no friends and the relatives I have I am not close to. I was hoping to have a termination in the comfort of my own home without judgmental eyes and without worrying about my husband knowing. I fear what would happen if he did. I have 3 children and my 3rd is 11 months old. I considered an abortion when he was conceived and had a terrible pregnancy and am still suffering from post natal depression. I will try to seek help, anonymously if possible. I’m in great need of help.”

Another woman says:

“I have visited my GP last week and he referred me to my local NHS service. They can only offer me a medical abortion with three visits to the hospital on separate days. On the second visit I am expected to stay there all day. I work full time and have two young sons so getting all that time off and childcare is going to be very difficult, probably impossible.”

Dr Rebecca Gomperts, the director of Women on Web, said about English women seeking help online:

“Yes, we get them all the time. We had an Islamic girl forbidden from leaving the house without a chaperone. How is she going to get to an abortion clinic? She can’t. For her, her only option might be that she could get the medicine sent to her by post.”

Due to the accessibility of medication now available online, women are more than ever before at risk of breaking the law, and a few prosecutions have already happened. I wonder if any of us truly believe that those women, in such difficult circumstances, really should be seen as criminals. Let me be clear that decriminalisation will not mean deregulation. Parliament can decide to retain existing safeguards within a decriminalised environment, including the existing time limit of 24 weeks. Abortion would remain subject to the same complex mass of general, criminal, civil, administrative and other legal provisions that govern all medical procedures.

I ask that hon. Members also consider the fact that Poland, a traditionally Catholic country, does not criminalise women for having an abortion, and even the United States has not criminalised women for having an abortion since the Supreme Court judgment in 1973. When the current US President suggested last year that women should be punished for having abortions, he was forced to backtrack after the public outcry.

In proposing the Bill, I want to thank the many individuals and organisations that have helped me along the way, including the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, Abortion Rights and, particularly, Professor Sally Sheldon at the University of Kent law school.

I want to address specifically the concerns about decriminalisation. I want to be clear about what this Bill will and will not do. First, decriminalisation will not make it easier to access abortions post-24 weeks. Under the 1967 Act, abortions beyond 24 weeks are allowed only in exceptional circumstances—if, for example, the mother’s life is at risk. The decriminalisation can apply these exact same conditions, and we know from countries that have already decriminalised, such as Canada and parts of Australia, that there is no evidence of an increase in late-term abortions.

Secondly, decriminalisation will not lead to a free-for-all with unlicensed practitioners providing abortions; as now, there will be strict regulation and licensing of health professionals. For example, both of the pills most commonly used in medical abortions are prescription only. That means they are covered under the Human Medicines Regulations 2012, which make it illegal to supply such drugs without a prescription. So with decriminalisation, Parliament would need to have an evidence-based debate about what kind of abortion provision up to 24 weeks would be in the best interests of women and agree appropriate safeguards.

Finally, decriminalisation will not permit gender-selective or non-consensual abortions. Some opponents of decriminalisation argue that the only way we can restrict these practices is to apply criminal law to everyone. I hope that hon. Members will appreciate that it is well within the capacity of this House to find a better way forward that does not criminalise all women and all practitioners. Let me be clear that under current law, women cannot obtain an abortion on grounds of the gender of the child. With decriminalisation, professional bodies that are best placed to take action can continue to prohibit this as a ground for abortion. It is worth pointing out that the current law does nothing about those who try to coerce women in those circumstances. On the issue of non-consensual abortions, such as when a man assaults a pregnant woman, these would continue to be criminalised under other laws such as grievous bodily harm.

Now that all these potential objections are addressed, hon. Members can be left to ask themselves the fundamental question that gets to the heart of what my Bill is about. It is this: should abortion be an inherently criminal act, punishable by up to life imprisonment? In asking themselves this question, I hope hon. Members will bear in mind the vulnerable women who are ill-served by our current laws and whether their care is now being compromised. There is also evidence that doctors are thinking twice about practising in this area of women’s healthcare because of the threat of criminalisation. We do not use these laws for any other medical practices, so why do we do it for abortion? This is one of the many reasons why a range of expert groups, including the Royal College of Midwives and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, support decriminalisation.

I hope that hon. Members will, like me, conclude that the criminalisation of abortion suits nobody. Women are poorly served by laws that state that even early-term abortions are inherently criminal, and doctors are poorly served by a criminal framework that does not apply to other areas of healthcare. We should create an environment in which the stigma of the criminal law is removed and in which women can come forward for advice and high-quality, woman-centred healthcare as early as possible in a pregnancy. I hope that hon. Members will join me in saying that in England and Wales in the 21st century, abortion should no longer be considered a criminal offence, and that the 1861 Act is now obsolete and no longer fit for purpose in this century.

In closing, I would like to repeat an observation on decriminalisation, which has, as I stated earlier, taken place in some Australian states. The quotation is this—that the decriminalisation has resulted in

“a profound shift in the relationship between the state and its female citizens. It changes both nothing and everything. Nothing, because the number, rate and incidence of abortion will not change. And everything, because for the first time women will be recognised as the authors of our own lives. With that comes our full citizenship.”I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to regulate the termination of pregnancies by medical practitioners and to repeal certain criminal offences relating to such terminations; and for connected purposes.

In England and Wales, women have a legal route to an abortion through the Abortion Act 1967, introduced by David Steel as a private Member’s Bill, but 50 years on it is right that the House has the chance to address one fundamental issue that the Act did not address. Abortion remains a criminal offence in this country, even if it is carried out early in the term, for the woman who has the abortion and anyone who assists her. Under sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861 and other legislation, termination of a pregnancy carries the maximum sentence of life imprisonment. That is the harshest criminal penalty of any country in Europe, underpinned by a Victorian criminal law passed before women even had the right to vote, let alone sit in this place.

The Abortion Act 1967 did not change the fundamental fact: it merely set out circumstances under which abortion could be legal—for example, the need for two doctors’ signatures that specified conditions have been met, including a time limit now set at 24 weeks and, in exceptional circumstances, the conditions for abortions post 24 weeks. Unlike in other countries, that means that abortion remains illegal except in the limited circumstances in the Act. No other medical procedure is governed by legislation that old or that out of step with clinical developments and changing attitudes.

I want the House to reflect on the following comments from women who have sought help from online organisations to buy abortion tablets—something that no one would have imagined in 1967, let alone 1861—as, in so doing, they are committing criminal offences under the 1861 Act. The first woman says:

“I live in rural England and have no friends and the relatives I have I am not close to. I was hoping to have a termination in the comfort of my own home without judgmental eyes and without worrying about my husband knowing. I fear what would happen if he did. I have 3 children and my 3rd is 11 months old. I considered an abortion when he was conceived and had a terrible pregnancy and am still suffering from post natal depression. I will try to seek help, anonymously if possible. I’m in great need of help.”

Another woman says:

“I have visited my GP last week and he referred me to my local NHS service. They can only offer me a medical abortion with three visits to the hospital on separate days. On the second visit I am expected to stay there all day. I work full time and have two young sons so getting all that time off and childcare is going to be very difficult, probably impossible.”

Dr Rebecca Gomperts, the director of Women on Web, said about English women seeking help online:

“Yes, we get them all the time. We had an Islamic girl forbidden from leaving the house without a chaperone. How is she going to get to an abortion clinic? She can’t. For her, her only option might be that she could get the medicine sent to her by post.”

Due to the accessibility of medication now available online, women are more than ever before at risk of breaking the law, and a few prosecutions have already happened. I wonder if any of us truly believe that those women, in such difficult circumstances, really should be seen as criminals. Let me be clear that decriminalisation will not mean deregulation. Parliament can decide to retain existing safeguards within a decriminalised environment, including the existing time limit of 24 weeks. Abortion would remain subject to the same complex mass of general, criminal, civil, administrative and other legal provisions that govern all medical procedures.

I ask that hon. Members also consider the fact that Poland, a traditionally Catholic country, does not criminalise women for having an abortion, and even the United States has not criminalised women for having an abortion since the Supreme Court judgment in 1973. When the current US President suggested last year that women should be punished for having abortions, he was forced to backtrack after the public outcry.

In proposing the Bill, I want to thank the many individuals and organisations that have helped me along the way, including the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, Abortion Rights and, particularly, Professor Sally Sheldon at the University of Kent law school.

I want to address specifically the concerns about decriminalisation. I want to be clear about what this Bill will and will not do. First, decriminalisation will not make it easier to access abortions post-24 weeks. Under the 1967 Act, abortions beyond 24 weeks are allowed only in exceptional circumstances—if, for example, the mother’s life is at risk. The decriminalisation can apply these exact same conditions, and we know from countries that have already decriminalised, such as Canada and parts of Australia, that there is no evidence of an increase in late-term abortions.

Secondly, decriminalisation will not lead to a free-for-all with unlicensed practitioners providing abortions; as now, there will be strict regulation and licensing of health professionals. For example, both of the pills most commonly used in medical abortions are prescription only. That means they are covered under the Human Medicines Regulations 2012, which make it illegal to supply such drugs without a prescription. So with decriminalisation, Parliament would need to have an evidence-based debate about what kind of abortion provision up to 24 weeks would be in the best interests of women and agree appropriate safeguards.

Finally, decriminalisation will not permit gender-selective or non-consensual abortions. Some opponents of decriminalisation argue that the only way we can restrict these practices is to apply criminal law to everyone. I hope that hon. Members will appreciate that it is well within the capacity of this House to find a better way forward that does not criminalise all women and all practitioners. Let me be clear that under current law, women cannot obtain an abortion on grounds of the gender of the child. With decriminalisation, professional bodies that are best placed to take action can continue to prohibit this as a ground for abortion. It is worth pointing out that the current law does nothing about those who try to coerce women in those circumstances. On the issue of non-consensual abortions, such as when a man assaults a pregnant woman, these would continue to be criminalised under other laws such as grievous bodily harm.

Now that all these potential objections are addressed, hon. Members can be left to ask themselves the fundamental question that gets to the heart of what my Bill is about. It is this: should abortion be an inherently criminal act, punishable by up to life imprisonment? In asking themselves this question, I hope hon. Members will bear in mind the vulnerable women who are ill-served by our current laws and whether their care is now being compromised. There is also evidence that doctors are thinking twice about practising in this area of women’s healthcare because of the threat of criminalisation. We do not use these laws for any other medical practices, so why do we do it for abortion? This is one of the many reasons why a range of expert groups, including the Royal College of Midwives and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, support decriminalisation.

I hope that hon. Members will, like me, conclude that the criminalisation of abortion suits nobody. Women are poorly served by laws that state that even early-term abortions are inherently criminal, and doctors are poorly served by a criminal framework that does not apply to other areas of healthcare. We should create an environment in which the stigma of the criminal law is removed and in which women can come forward for advice and high-quality, woman-centred healthcare as early as possible in a pregnancy. I hope that hon. Members will join me in saying that in England and Wales in the 21st century, abortion should no longer be considered a criminal offence, and that the 1861 Act is now obsolete and no longer fit for purpose in this century.

In closing, I would like to repeat an observation on decriminalisation, which has, as I stated earlier, taken place in some Australian states. The quotation is this—that the decriminalisation has resulted in

“a profound shift in the relationship between the state and its female citizens. It changes both nothing and everything. Nothing, because the number, rate and incidence of abortion will not change. And everything, because for the first time women will be recognised as the authors of our own lives. With that comes our full citizenship.”

 

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