By Charlotte Nichols / @
This week, following a Ten Minute Rule Bill introduced by Labour MP Diana Johnson, MPs voted to decriminalise abortion in England and Wales; the Bill passed by 172 votes in favour, and 142 against, with its second reading on March 24th.
Fifty years on from the Abortion Act 1967 which made abortion legal providing certain conditions were met, this is a huge step forward. The Abortion Act is not, as is commonly misunderstood, the ‘right’ to an abortion. It remains illegal, and those accessing it outside of the strict framework by which it is permissable (i.e. with the permission of two registered doctors who testify in good faith that there are defined medical grounds for allowing termination), face possible life imprisonment.
Unfortunately, the Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland where abortion remains illegal except in a few very specific defined circumstances, and we have seen in recent years a number of women prosecuted for trying to access abortions for themselves or loved ones. Every year, thousands of women from Northern Ireland (and the Republic of Ireland) travel to England to access services they should be able to safely and legally back home. Northern Ireland residents must pay for the services privately as they are not available to them on the NHS. For women who cannot afford this, many turn to buying mifepristone and misoprostol pills online, which can be bought for around £60. Just this week, the Police Service of Northern Ireland have been carrying out raids trying to crack down on the supply of these pills, only increasing the desperation of women facing crisis pregnancies. To say that this is draconian is an understatement- the law regulating abortion in Northern Ireland is from 1861, surely unconscionable in 2017.
In Scotland, abortion law is a devolved matter, and large geographical variation in service provision across health boards in Scotland means women having to travel outside of Scotland every year to access the support they need, particularly after 12 weeks’ gestation. Women’s Officers of Young Labour, Labour Students, Scottish Young Labour and Scottish Labour Students wrote to Kezia Dugdale in December regarding abortion decriminalisation in Scotland, following the publication of the Engender report entitled “Our Bodies, Our Choice: The Case for a Scottish Approach to Abortion”. The report, supported by organisations including Amnesty Scotland, NUS Scotland, Rape Crisis Scotland and Scottish Women’s Aid, laid out an evidence-based argument for decriminalisation of abortion in Scotland and we hope its recommendations will form the backbone of Labour policy on abortion in Scotland in coming years.
Wherever you are in the UK, your crisis pregnancy falls under criminal law (to a greater or lesser extent), rather than being regulated like other medical procedures. This treats those facing crisis pregnancy not as deserving of support and compassion, but as potential criminals. It treats women as incubators without agency who cannot be trusted to make decisions in the best interests of themselves and their families, and makes doctors and politicians gatekeepers of much needed services.
It was therefore heartbreaking to see six Labour MPs vote to oppose the Bill. Six Labour MPs who believe that women accessing abortions should be able to be prosecuted.
There is the old feminist slogan that the personal is political, and never moreso than in the case of abortion- like as many as one-third of women, I had an abortion. I am not a criminal. It was a decision for which I feel neither shame nor regret, and can honestly say I do not believe I would be alive today had I been forced to continue with my pregnancy against my will. It’s hard to explain the white-hot fear of finding out you’re pregnant when you are not mentally, emotionally or financially prepared for it to someone who has never experienced it (or will never experience it, in the case of the male MPs among the six). Of not knowing who you can trust to tell, or to ask for support, for fear of being ostracised- or worse punished- for seeking an abortion. I understand that many have strongly held ethical or religious convictions about abortion, particularly as someone deeply religious myself, but I don’t believe that another individual has the right to force someone who does not share their beliefs into carrying and bearing a child. If you don’t like abortions, don’t get one but don’t come for someone else’s.
While you don’t have to agree with abortion, in 2017, believing that women should not be able to be prosecuted for accessing abortion services is surely the minimum standard we expect from our party representatives. It’s a very low bar to set, and I am ashamed that there are Labour MPs who fell short. While the Ten Minute Rule Bill is not a panacea, it is a step in the right direction. Shame on those who would stand in the way of progress.
Charlotte is Women’s Officer for Young Labour