Last week Donald Trump caused outrage by suggesting that women who had illegal abortions should be punished; so much outrage, in fact, that he was forced to backtrack. This week a Belfast woman was convicted under the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act after she took pills to induce an abortion. Abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland (the province is exempted from the provisions of the 1967 Abortion Act, which applies to the rest of the UK). Northern Irish women who want an abortion have to travel to a clinic in England, Wales or Scotland. The woman convicted this week could not afford the cost, so had to induce her own abortion.
More than twenty years ago, I wrote an article about the plight of women in Northern Ireland seeking abortion (I republished it Pandaemonium last year at the time of a judicial challenge to the law in Northern Ireland). Twenty years on, little has changed.
a woman cannot choose for herself to have an abortion. Two doctors must decide whether she meets the criteria laid out in the 1967 Abortion Act. Women should be trusted to make their own decisions about their own pregnancies. To compel a woman to endure pregnancy and childbirth unless doctors give her legal authorisation to have an abortion is to deny her the right to control her own body, plan her own family and determine her own life course.
The 1967 Abortion did not replace the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act but rather ‘carved out therapeutic exemptions to the OAPA (and equivalent common law in Scotland) and allowed abortion where women and doctors met certain requirements.’ In other words, it provided a legal defence for those carrying out the operation in certain circumstances. The 1967 Act
placed decision-making about abortion in the hands of doctors, not women. Abortion is still not a woman’s choice and no woman has the right to end a pregnancy. Instead, two doctors must decide whether they think she should be allowed to end the pregnancy. No other routine medical procedure demands legal authorisation by doctors in addition to the normal requirements of obtaining informed consent.
It is unacceptable, the campaign argues
that women’s bodies remain governed by Victorian legislation that fossilises values well out of step with those cherished in Britain today. The criminalisation of abortion makes a mockery of the equal status that is accorded to women in any other area of life, represents discrimination against women, and stigmatises the one in three women who will have an abortion.
We believe abortion should be governed by the same robust regulatory and ethical frameworks which govern all other medical procedures in the UK. In the 21st century we should be trusting women to make their own decisions about their own pregnancies, and removing the threat of prosecution from those healthcare professionals providing women with the services and support they need.
Abortion should be decriminalized. Support the campaign.
The image is one of Barbara Hepworth’s Hospital drawings.