A campaign to remove abortion from criminal law was launched on Tuesday as it emerged two women could be jailed in Northern Ireland for abortion offences.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) want to decriminalise abortion and are being supported by a range of women’s organisations including Fawcett Society, Royal College of Midwives and End Violence Against Women Coalition.
At present, a woman who ends her own pregnancy at any gestation can be sentenced to life imprisonment under "laws created before women could vote", the BPAS said.
"Women’s organisations have today backed calls for Victorian-era legislation criminalising abortion to be scrapped and for the procedure to be regulated in the same way as all other women’s healthcare," it said.
The 1861 Offences Against the Person Act - and equivalent common law offences in Scotland - the BPAS said, "threatens the harshest punishments for self-induced abortion imposed by any country in Europe today, with the exception of the Republic of Ireland".
The 1967 Abortion Act did not overturn that law, but made abortion lawful if two doctors agreed a woman’s mental or physical health would suffer if she were forced to continue her pregnancy. It did not extend to Northern Ireland.
BPAS said: "But even where it applies, abortion is not a choice a woman can make for herself, but a decision which must be made on her behalf by doctors."
Goretti Horgan, Alliance for Choice Northern Ireland, said the two women currently facing trial in Northern Ireland are at "the sharp end of the criminalisation of abortion in the UK".
She said the women were "essentially" on trial because they could not afford to travel to Britain and pay for a private abortion.
Horgan said: "If the mother who faces prison for getting abortion pills for her teenage daughter lived in England, her daughter would have been fast-tracked for an abortion if that's what she wanted. A 21-year old is facing life imprisonment for taking pills that she would have got on the NHS had she lived in Britain. This should not be happening in the 21st century."
In Durham last year, a mother was imprisoned for two-and-a-half-years for inducing a miscarriage in the third trimester using medication bought online.
The BPAS said the "increasing availability and knowledge of these pills means more women are likely to put themselves at risk of prosecution".
It added: "Abortion cannot be provided solely on the request of a woman anywhere in the UK today, and a doctor, midwife or nurse who provided safe abortion care on her request alone could face prison."
BPAS said decriminalisation was needed because current legislation around abortions was "not in keeping with principles of women’s rights, bodily autonomy, and patient-centred care".
The threat of prosecution, it said, was also putting doctors off "training in this field and providing care".
"Today, even where the 1967 Act applies, women are compelled to continue pregnancies because they cannot find doctors willing or able to treat them," the BPAS said.
"In requiring women obtain the permission of two doctors, the current law can delay those who are sure of their decision. It has also prevented developments in clinical practice that have facilitated the safe and effective treatment of women in other countries
"As safe and effective medications to induce abortion become readily available online, more women are at risk of prosecution. Even countries such as Poland, where abortion is highly restricted, do not prosecute women for self-inducing abortion."
Ann Furedi, BPAS chief executive, said one-in-three women in the UK will have an abortion during their lifetime and the law needed to change to enable them to "live their lives in the way they see fit, and bear children at the time they think is right".
She said: "It is high time we recognised this by taking abortion out of the criminal law, and making clear that we trust women to make their own decisions about their own lives and bodies.”
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Sam Smethers, Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society, added: “Safe, early, medical abortions are readily available but our outdated abortion laws hinder women’s access to them. It makes no sense to force women to delay the termination of a pregnancy when that is their decision.
“We need modern abortion legislation fit for 21st Century.”
Diane Munday, the former general secretary of the Abortion Law Reform Association in the 1960s, said: “If in 1967 - on the day I celebrated that parliament had put Britain in the vanguard for women’s reproductive rights - anybody had told me that nearly half a century later we would be lagging behind most of Europe I would have called them deluded. But they would have been right.
"In the past 50 years, technology and medicine have moved forward beyond belief, yet abortion remains hedged with the same red tape as it did in the 1960s. The anachronistic legal need for two doctors who know nothing about the pregnant woman, her life and her circumstances still stands. Jurisdictions including Canada and Australia have decriminalised abortion and the skies have not fallen in – and neither have rates of abortion risen.
"In 2016, it is time for Britain to catch up and to acknowledge that women know what is best for themselves and their families.”