Should Britain change its abortion laws?
LIKE MANY laws governing controversial matters, the Abortion Act of 1967 was a compromise. To protect women in Britain from backstreet abortions, it allowed the termination of pregnancies in most cases until 28 weeks (this was later lowered to 24). In recognition of some peoples belief that abortion is murder, it did not repeal sections of an act from 1861 that criminalise abortion. It also required two doctors to authorise a termination: a medically unnecessary step that carried an aura of disapproval. For more than half a century, this arrangement has meant that abortion law has been considered broadly settled. Is that beginning to change? On June 17th abortion-rights advocates marched from the Royal Courts of Justice to Parliament calling for abortion to be decriminalised. Their march was sparked by a grim case. Days earlier a mother of three had been sentenced to 28 months (of which she will serve half in prison) for taking abortifacients, drugs that induce abortion, when she was 32-34 weeks pregnant. The baby was stillborn. Her sentence was harsh: guidelines warn that imprisonment should not happen if the impact on dependents would be disproportionate to achieving the aims of sentencing. But activists say that the problem is the law itself. The judge had advised that complaints should be taken to Parliament. Though rare, such prosecutions are not unheard of. In 2012 a woman who aborted a baby about a week before its due date, using pills bought online, was sentenced to eight years (later reduced to three and a half). Such cases may become more common. Changes introduced in the pandemic, letting women receive abortion medication by post after a telemedicine consultation, were made permanent last August. The court heard that the woman in this years case had told the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, a charity that provided the drugs, that she was around seven weeks pregnant. Checking such things is difficult other than in a clinic. Imprisoning a woman for having an abortion is pointless, even cruel. Claire Pierson, who lectures at Liverpool University and co-wrote Reimagining Global Abortion Politics, notes that the law, designed to protect women from Victorian abortionists, rather than fetuses from women, threatens to cause great harm to all involved. The fact that she risked being charged meant the woman in this case may have felt unable to seek support that could have allowed her to manage to continue with the pregnancy, she says. Britains legislative fudge is archaic. In 1967 most Britons opposed abortion in most cases; today, most believe it should be legal. When abortion was legalised in Northern Ireland, four years ago, this application of the 1861 law was ditched. Several leading politicians have suggested that Britain will not change its laws, at least not in this parliamentary term. Yet Charles Foster, a law professor at Oxford University, thinks that an incoming Labour government may want new legislation to accept the prima facie lawfulness of abortion in certain circumstances. He doesnt think it would make much difference in practice, though: Whatever the 1967 and 1861 acts say, in reality Britain has a fairly liberal abortion culture. Given legitimate concerns about sending abortifacients by post, regulations there might be revisited, perhaps tightened. The latest case has fired up abortion-rights activists, who will keep pushing. But it has also created an opportunity for anti-abortion campaigners. The end of Roe v Wade in America has energised both sides, and polarised the debate in Britain, says Mr Foster. This is evident in the language used: from the Our bodies, our right to decide banners waved in London to discussions, by anti-abortion activists, of the rights of the fetus. Britain has one of the most liberal gestational abortion limits in Europe: 24 weeks compared with 12 to 14 weeks elsewhere (including in Northern Ireland). Pro-life MPs would love an opportunity to tell Parliament just why it should be lower. For more expert analysis of the biggest stories in Britain, sign up to Blighty, our weekly subscriber-only newsletter.