This week a new campaign has been launched to decriminalise abortion in the UK. It's likely to cause serious consternation. Not because we aren't pro-choice in this country - the vast majority of us are. But because most people will be horrified that abortion, a safe, well-regulated and extremely common procedure still sits within a criminal law passed in 1861.
In Victorian Britain women had few rights, rarely had independent means, could be morally ruined by pregnancy outside of wedlock and physically ruined by the relentless cycle of conception, pregnancy and childbirth within it. In this context it was common for women to put their lives in the hands of untrained abortionists. The carnage of dangerous backstreet abortions provided the gruesome backdrop to the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA), which aimed to deter women from abortion by threatening long sentences for them and those who helped them abort. The failure of this Act to end abortion won't surprise anyone looking at the relationship between abortion law and abortion prevalence around the world today.
The number of women having abortions (one in three women will have one in their life time here) remains largely the same whether abortion is legal or illegal. The mortality and morbidity rates do not. Despite the grave dangers of illegal abortion it continues unabated around the world, killing around 47,000 women a year and damaging many tens of thousands more. Both historically and in contemporary life unwanted pregnancy appears to be uniquely intolerable for women. Neither the threat of imprisonment nor the risk of death can deter a woman who simply cannot bear this pregnancy now.
In order to save women's lives, and preserve their physical and mental health the 1967 Abortion Act gave doctors specific grounds under which they could authorise and carry out abortions legally. One of the reasons most of us don't realise that abortion is still potentially a criminal act is because these grounds are broad enough to cover most circumstances in which women might request abortion. So women in England, Scotland and Wales can access safe, legal abortion and the scourge of backstreet abortion has, thankfully, been consigned to the history books. Nearly 50 years after the Abortion Act was passed we must celebrate this as a public health triumph.
We should also ask ourselves whether the Offences Against the Person Act is still necessary today. Most of the offences within it are rightly covered by other laws addressing violence and assault. Doctors and other health providers must comply with a raft of regulations and clinically approved practices to ensure the safety of their patients, and these regulations are extremely clear and robust with regards to abortion. So, is the OAPA just an irrelevance, an anachronism that we can ignore? Shouldn't we just get on with trying to extend the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, and ensure it remains in place in Scotland when abortion becomes a devolved issue later this year?
Well no - we shouldn't. It should be intolerable to us as a society that we would even consider locking up a woman for abortion. The OAPA is rarely used to prosecute women, but when it is it targets the most desperate, vulnerable and unsupported: women who feel the intense unbearableness of their unwanted pregnancy, but have somehow found themselves outside of the criteria set by the 1967 Abortion Act. This 1861 law casts its long shadow over doctors too and can inhibit them from giving women in the most need the care and support they require, and that as a society we want them to have.
By taking abortion out of the criminal law altogether, continuing to regulate it well and ensuring straightforward access for all, it will change very little for most women. The experience in Canada where abortion was removed from the criminal law nearly 30 years ago is that abortion rates remain stable.
What it will do is set us firmly in the 21st Century. It will establish for once and for all that as a nation we trust women; that we are committed to timely, compassionate, professional support for all women who face a pregnancy that - for any number of reasons - they simply cannot bear; and that we wholeheartedly support and celebrate the doctors, nurses, midwives and other support staff who care for a woman when she becomes one of the one in three.