11/04/2012 18:35 BST | Updated 11/06/2012 06:12 BST

UK Abortion Law Needs an Urgent Re-Think Before We Turn Into America

A woman's right to choose whether or not to have a child is preserved by nothing more stringent than a gentleman's agreement. The problem with gentlemen's agreements is that they don't necessarily serve women. It's time for an urgent change in the law.

The collective preoccupation with abortion in the United States always seemed, to a British observer, to be a bit like cheeseburger soup or Rick Santorum - one of those passing American curiosities that, although vaguely unsettling, is never really going to affect life as we know it in Britain.

Until recently, UK politicians didn't really 'do' abortion. Perhaps the single most controversial issue in American politics, a moral wedge over which people fight, quite literally, to the death in the US, has always been a bit of a non-issue in Britain. Most people probably rarely give the matter a second thought.

But while the travelling misogyny roadshow that constituted the US Republican primaries was diverting our attention, Britain has slowly but surely started to develop its own anti-abortion culture.

Abortion is legal in the UK, but only just. We reached an uneasy consensus nearly 50 years ago, with the Abortion Act of 1967, which legalised the procedure only if two separate doctors assess a woman and declare in writing that continuing her pregnancy would put her at risk of grave harm to her physical and mental health. With a few minor tweaks here and there across the years, that is broadly how the position has remained.

The sentiment behind the legislation doesn't bear close scrutiny. After all, it seems unlikely that its moralistic box-ticking requirements are the only thing standing between us and a large-scale 'leisure abortion' industry, in which women regularly pamper themselves with a simultaneous abortion and facial.

But despite its anachronisms, until now, this gentlemanly fudge of a law has in practice allowed any woman seeking an abortion has been able to obtain one. Doctors, by and large, regard the supernumerary form-signing as a formality and in general, they don't bore into women's souls to comply with the letter of the law.

But recent political developments have thrown all this into disarray, and shown just how vulnerable this outdated legislation leaves both women and health-care professionals.

Last month the Telegraph revealed that Health Secretary Andrew Lansley had ordered the Care Quality Commission, the body which carries out inspections of hospital and care facilities, to carry out urgent unannounced inspections of around 250 abortion clinics, to check that they were adhering to the letter of the 1967 Act.

The quality of care they were providing was never in question. The stings were to ensure that the bureaucratic requirements of the law were being carried out in full. Amongst other minor breaches, the inspections found that up to one in five clinics had been 'pre-signing' consent forms before individual women had been seen.

This seemingly sensible time-saving procedure led to these clinics now facing investigations by the police, and potentially prosecution. The Head of the Care Quality Commission complained that the whole operation cost more than a million pounds of public money and forced the Commission to cancel around 580 inspections of hospitals and other care facilities in order to carry out Lansley's request. For a government that is so concerned with austerity, this is a staggering example of unnecessary jobsworth-ness at best, at worst, it's a witch hunt.

Lansley's stunt is part of a wider chipping away at abortion rights. Last year, Conservative MP Nadine Dorries introduced an amendment to existing legislation in parliament that would require all providers of abortion counselling services to be 'independent'- ie not themselves providers of abortion services. Experts argued that not only would this inevitably delay and heavily complicate the whole unpleasant procedure of obtaining an abortion, it would also open up the field to anti-abortion campaigners setting themselves up as counselling services in an effort to dissuade women from going ahead with the procedure.

The motion was heavily defeated by a majority of 250 votes, which should have been the end of the matter, but it was later revealed that the government were bypassing parliament and launching a separate 'consultation' on the issue, the results of which could yet see Dorries' plan put into practice.

All of this is set against a backdrop of a growing vocal anti-abortion movement in the UK. Amongst others, the US anti-abortion group 40 Days for Life is growing in support in Britain (incidentally pictures show that its membership is oddly heavy on the 'never likely to need an abortion' contingent- nuns, men and octogenarians mainly) and has been engaged in long running prayer vigils outside abortion clinics, allegedly filming women going in and out of their doors and attempting to persuade them to change their minds.

In this climate, the only way to truly guarantee a woman's right to choose is to rip up the current legislation and start again. The assumption that a woman is unable to make up her own mind about whether or not she should continue with a pregnancy, and instead needs two doctors to decide for her, is not just outdated but deeply sexist. She should merely have to give informed consent, as does anyone else seeking any voluntary legal medical procedure. Furthermore, doctors should not be forced to uphold fifty-year old moral codes at the risk of prosecution.

This is not a fringe issue - one in three women will have an abortion at some time in their lives before the age of 45, and under current law, a woman's right to choose whether or not to have a child is preserved by nothing more stringent than a gentleman's agreement.

The problem with gentlemen's agreements is that they don't necessarily serve women. It's time for an urgent change in the law.