In England and Wales, along with the other nations of the UK, abortion remains a criminalised offence. Having evolved from Victorian laws, strict clauses are now in place to allow some abortion services (Northern Ireland is not covered by this law). But, if broken, life imprisonment can still be applied to people who have accessed/ helped facilitate an abortion outside the letter of the law. An offence still present to this very day.
This archaic setup has long been protested out of the right for people with child bearing ability to choose the destiny of their body. In 2017 this protest met part fruition for those living in England and Wales with the introduction of the Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) Bill to the Commons. The Bill set to remove the life imprisonment sentence for those that might have got caught up by the current system. Labour MP Diana Johnson commented that the current legislation holds “the harshest criminal penalty of any country in Europe, underpinned by a Victorian criminal law passed before women even had the right to vote, let alone sit in this place [The House of Commons]”.
But, with the snap election called for by the UK Prime Minister Theresa May in 2017, Parliament was dissolved and the Bill fell.
By positioning herself to gain a bigger majority in the new election to ensure her vision of what Brexit should be, this bill, which gave hope to increase the security over the decisions a pregnant person can make, fell afoul of the rhetoric spun off of the current Brexit storm.
The UK holds uniquely devolved powers over abortion where the UK’s Parliament has control over England and Wales in this policy area with separate institutions involved for Scotland and Northern Ireland - making this Bill limited to who it would have covered. Additionally, this bill did not seek to open access, but simply to remove criminal sentences that could be passed down.
Although limited, it was still a step in a better direction to ensure people do not get caught out for wanting the right to practice family planning.
The importance of this legislation is not only down to human rights, but also to bring the UK back into alignment with the developed world. In the 1960s abortion laws in the UK were some of the most progressive, opening up choice to people for the first time. Since then they have been trailing behind countries such as Spain and Uruguay in terms of decision making ability.
With her majority lost, cabinet in disarray and the country facing division throughout the Brexit negotiations the chance for the UK’s abortion laws to be revisited is looking slimmer by the day.
In this year celebrating 100 years of voting power for (some) women in the UK it could have been a momentous occasion for the second female Prime Minister to reside upon and yet the change seems to have stalled. With the lack of funding allocated by the UK’s government to even celebrate the 100 years of votes for women, perhaps there is a theme of neglect around female empowerment in our current administration.
However, Brexit has been the ultimate curveball that no one believed could happen. Impacting policy from energy to climate change has thrown the rule book up in the air. But, regardless of the crisis at hand, forward thinking is the best remedy to subduing any calamity and if the UK’s Parliament can find £3.5billion to restore Westminster then resources can be found to readdress backwards abortion laws.
There is some hope, though. The unusual setup of the UK means there is still room to change in the not so distant future.
Whereas the bill would only have affected England and Wales, Scotland can independently legislate for reform to take place. So could Northern Ireland, but that is a story of its own. Steps being taken by Nicola Sturgeon’s government such as allowing Scottish women to take abortion pills at home for the first time shows progress can still be made.
Brexit has caused countless issues like reproductive rights to be placed on the back burner as the government focuses on making sure we don’t fall off the economic cliff when we leave the EU. If anything this article serves as a reminder that, as we lose the oversight and reviewing power of EU institutions, we must remain vigilant to protecting/furthering our own rights as the responsibility falls squarely back on the UK’s Government and ourselves to uphold them.