It is 50 years on Friday since David Steel’s abortion act became law. It did not come into force until the following April. In those six months, it is likely that around 70 women died from sepsis or some other cause resulting from illegal abortion: in the previous decade, it claimed at least 150 lives a year, the biggest single cause of maternal mortality. Activists in a campaign that began in the 1930s toasted victory with champagne. But one veteran, who had had an illegal abortion herself, dampened the celebrations. They should be drinking half-glasses, she said, for the job was only half done.
Nonetheless, in the past 50 years millions of women have benefited from access to safe abortion. It has transformed the future for many girls and women – young women in particular, for the peak age for abortion is 19; it is also disproportionately in demand in poorer parts of England and Wales. There are now around 200,000 abortions recorded each year, but almost all of them – 92% – take place in the first trimester of pregnancy. No one likes carrying out an abortion, says the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, but the alternative – illegal, unsafe abortion – is worse.
Yet reforming the law does remain a job half done. The Abortion Act 1967 did not decriminalise termination; it merely introduced a very narrow set of exemptions from the criminal law, a tiny window where abortion was legal, restricted by the requirement that two doctors agree that carrying a pregnancy to term would be a greater risk than termination, or that the unborn child had such physical or mental abnormalities that it would be seriously handicapped.
Over time, these rules have been interpreted much less restrictively. But even if practice has changed, they are still in force, and abortion remains a criminal offence both for the woman and for medical practitioners. Every doctor is aware that they remain open to prosecution. Nor is it only in Northern Ireland that women who buy abortion pills online are open to prosecution. An adult woman still does not have the autonomy to make one of the most fundamental decisions about her body and her life. And for all those involved – women and health practitioners – the climate around abortion remains punitive.
Yet despite the strength of argument for reform, this is perilous territory. In the past half century, for every tentative attempt to complete the process of liberalising the law, there have been a score or more efforts to restrict it further. Only one has succeeded, a cut in the maximum term from 28 to 24 weeks – but in an age of culture wars, this is a field aggressively patrolled by anti-abortion activists, many of whom are part of a revivalist right that sanctifies motherhood and sees every liberal advance as a cautionary tale about modernity.
And yet, in March this year, Diana Johnson, the Kingston upon Hull MP, successfully won a vote on a backbench bill to decriminalise abortion. Although the general election intervened, MPs believe there is still a pro-change majority in the Commons and in the Lords. Nor is it only campaigners in parliament who think that the time has come for further reform. One reason for the new optimism is that for the first time, the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists all now support decriminalisation. The professionals who are most closely involved in reproductive health, trained and qualified people devoted to securing and protecting healthy lives for women and babies, believe that it is necessary to change the law to reflect the way the world has changed since 1967.
Changes in practice mean most abortions are now medical rather than surgical; a steady rise in early terminations has accompanied the widespread introduction of drugs that trigger abortion. Experience in Canada and parts of Australia where decriminalisation has been introduced shows it has not led to a surge in abortion. Above all, decriminalisation does not mean deregulation. The Johnson bill would have made no change at all to the existing restrictions on, for example, the 24-week limit or the ban on sex-selection abortion. It continued to recognise that there are deeply held conscientious objections. It could have introduced new criminal sanctions on those who coerce or deceive women into abortion. Abortion has always been polarising. But this is a job half done, and it’s time to complete it.
Source: The Guardian