Abortion decriminalisation vote: ‘Let’s protect women from Victorian laws’

Diana Johnson

This is one of two op-eds about Johnson’s proposed amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill, which would prevent women being criminalised for seeking an abortion at any stage  – you can find an alternative view from Labour MP Mary Glindon here. The bill returns to the Commons today, though the amendment is not likely to be voted on today.

Less than two years ago, seven police officers arrived at a woman’s home. She had called an ambulance after giving birth prematurely. While she performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on her unconscious baby, the officers did nothing to help. Instead, they were busy searching her bins. Why? Because they believed she had “illegally” ended her own pregnancy.

She’s not alone. In the past 18 months, one woman has been sentenced to prison, six women have been taken to court, and numerous others have been investigated for suspected abortion offences.  Victims of domestic abuse, human trafficking, sexual exploitation, as well as girls under the age of 18, have been subjected to humiliating and dehumanising interrogations and detainment under the suspicion of ending their own pregnancies illegally.

And just this week, a young woman is on trial in Gloucestershire accused of purchasing abortion medication illicitly online to end her own pregnancy.

It is these harrowing cases that my amendment, NC1 to the Criminal Justice Bill, is designed to stop.

Outdated laws

Although abortion is available in England and Wales under conditions set by the 1967 Abortion Act, the law underpinning it – the Offences Against the Person Act – dates back 163 years to 1861. Related law dates back 95 years. Both carry a maximum life sentence.

This Victorian law, passed by a Parliament of men, elected by men alone, is increasingly used against vulnerable women and girls. Perhaps most disturbingly, the same law is used to punish violent partners who end a woman’s pregnancy without consent through violence or coercion. If that woman turns up to hospital with complications from this abuse – those familiar with recent cases tell us – healthcare professionals are just as likely to call the police on her as they are on her abuser.

We cannot go on like this.

What reform looks like

I believe that it is never in the public interest to prosecute a woman for ending her own pregnancy. That’s why I have tabled the cross-party amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill (NC1) to remove women from the criminal law on abortion when they’re acting in relation to their own pregnancy.

The amendment is tightly drafted, targeted, and cross-party – with 51 MPs supporting it so far. It does not change the abortion time limit, nor the grounds on which abortions are provided, nor the requirement for two doctors’ signatures, nor the law or guidance around sex-selective abortion, nor the legal restrictions on telemedicine.

It is simply about having a common-sense protection for vulnerable women throughout their pregnancy.

In so-doing, it would bring England and Wales into line with a large number of countries with both more restrictive and liberal laws than ours – from Northern Ireland, to Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, France, Poland, and – you may be surprised to learn – the most restrictive states in the US. Because when you read the abortion law in Texas, which allows abortion only up to 6 weeks, on the face of the statute is a ban on the criminalisation of women.

This is why my solution is backed by leading medical bodies and organisations in the women’s sector including the Royal Colleges of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Midwives, and General Practitioners, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Women’s Aid, Karma Nirvana, Refuge, the Fawcett Society and Mumsnet.

Anti-abortion scaremongering

Over my years working on abortion law reform in Parliament, I have become used to the attacks levelled at my attempts to modernise the law. Whether that’s wider reform to treat abortion like healthcare, to supporting the ability of women to take abortion medication in the comfort of their own home rather than being forced to take a train while going through a miscarriage, to the introduction of safe access zones. This time is no exception.

It has been alleged that this amendment would legalise sex-selective abortion – not so, as the law around the provision of abortion is not changing. I cannot think of a worse argument to protect women at risk of honour-based abuse than to criminalise them if they are forced into ending a pregnancy by family members because of the sex of their foetus. That’s why my amendment is supported by Karma Nirvana, along with a wide array of Violence Against Women and Girls organisations.

It has also been alleged that this would somehow mean an abolition of the time limit, or – in lurid anti-abortion terms – ‘abortion up to birth’. To make clear again, this amendment changes nothing about how and when abortion is provided. Nearly 90% of abortions now happen in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy – thanks in large part to the medical innovations that have been opposed at every turn by anti-abortion activists.

Claims that this issue could be solved by restricting access to telemedicine are simply divorced from reality. For a start, not every woman facing investigation used telemedicine services. Some of them hadn’t even had an abortion. There have been investigations following unexplained pregnancy losses, and many more over many years which are linked to purchase of pills from friends, from abroad, or over the internet.

At a time when the US Supreme Court is set to rule on a case designed by anti-abortion extremists to restrict to the point of inaccessibility essential abortion medication, to hear the same arguments being put forward by British MPs should concern us all.

Beyond my amendment, I know my colleagues will be looking closely on the two amendments laid by anti-abortion MPs on the other side of the House which would restrict access to legal abortion at later gestations. These proposals have been opposed by 120 foetal medicine experts – who provide medical care to women experiencing the most difficult pregnancies, and the British Association of Perinatal Medicine has come out to criticise the misinterpretation of their clinical information to paint survival rates before the abortion time limit as significantly better than they are in reality.

‘Attempts to roll back women’s rights will not wash’

In a general election year, and with abortion on the ballot in the US and many other countries around the world, we cannot allow these tactics by anti-abortion extremists to succeed. The UK must send a clear message that these attempts to roll back women’s rights, here and abroad, will not wash.

Because the reality is this – no woman wakes up at 24 weeks pregnant and suddenly decides to end her pregnancy outside a hospital or clinic. But some women, desperate and vulnerable, make choices many of us would struggle to understand. The only question is, faced with this desperation, do we abandon them to the police and the courts, or do we recognise that a truly modern abortion law should reflect the compassion and healthcare support they so need?

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