The appalling ordeal of a young woman in Northern Ireland, dragged before the courts for using abortion pills bought online, has yet again highlighted the gross injustice experienced by women in this region when it comes to accessing abortion. The 1967 Abortion Act, which made abortion lawful in certain circumstances, never extended to Northern Ireland. Abortion is only available to a tiny number of women, and so women must either travel to England - at huge personal cost, or take their chances by ordering pills online.
But we should be very wary of concluding that women elsewhere in the UK have a "right" to abortion that their sisters in Northern Ireland are denied. They do not.
Abortion laws in the UK are underpinned by the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act. This legislation, passed before women could vote or legally refuse sex with their husbands, stipulated that any woman who induces her own miscarriage can be sentenced to life in prison. This legislation is still in force and used against women today. It was used against the young woman in Northern Ireland, it was also used against a young mother from County Durham who also used abortion medication bought online. She was sentenced to 3 years in prison just before Christmas.
The 1967 Act did not repeal the 1861 legislation, rather it created exemptions. A woman would not be prosecuted if two doctors agreed she met certain criteria and gave legal authorisation to her request. Any woman anywhere in the UK who has an abortion without that legal authorisation from two doctors can be prosecuted. This means any woman anywhere in the UK who uses abortion medication she has bought online to end a pregnancy at any gestation can go to prison - in principle for life. Of course in most of the UK it's reasonable to assume women should have no reason to do so. Abortion is funded by the NHS and much work has gone into making services as accessible as possible to women, within the constraints of the 1967 Abortion Act, which kept abortion fully inside the criminal law.
But there will always be women who turn online for help rather than seek professional help. They may be young women who are scared their parents will know, women in abusive relationships who fear making the multiple trips to a clinic the law demands in case their partner finds out, or women with no right to NHS funded care. All these women risk prison.
Even a country such as Poland, where abortion is all but outlawed, does not imprison women for inducing their own miscarriage.
We need to ask ourselves - what purpose does criminalisation serve? If we don't think women should go to prison for taking control of their own bodies, then we need to act.
Bpas - joined by a coalition of women's organisation including the Fawcett Society, the Royal College of Midwives, the Women's Equality Party and Women's Aid, is calling for the offending sections of the Offences Against The Person Act to be removed. Abortion should be taken out of the criminal law altogether and regulated in the same way as all other healthcare procedures. Women should be trusted to make their own decisions about their own pregnancies, without having to jump through a series of legal hurdles that they would not experience in any other area of healthcare.
If you agree, join us. Sign up to the campaign at wetrustwomen.org.uk today.
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