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Call to decriminalise abortion in UK

In an editorial in The BMJ, published today, editor in chief of BMJ Sexual & Reproductive Health, Sandy Goldbeck-Wood, on behalf of her editorial board colleagues, calls on British premier, Theresa May, to decriminalise abortion in the UK.   This follows the recent decisions to liberalise abortion laws in the Republic of Ireland and the Isle of Man.

Abortion law in UK

The UK 1967 Abortion Act was introduced to provide a legal defence against the criminal law passed in 1861,  but the Offences Against the Person Act remains on the statute book.

The women of Northern Ireland are the most vulnerable to this 150 years old, anachronistic piece of Victorian criminal law,  because under the law in the Province allows for no defence,  even in cases of rape or fatal fetal abnormalities. As a result, women who have an abortion in Northern Ireland still  face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

The UK government has argued that this is a matter for the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly, but currently these powers are being exercised from Westminster whilst the Assembly is suspended.

It is time that access to termination under the law to be made uniform for all United Kingdom citizens.

Four key arguments are presented.  First, whether or not it is legal, abortion is widespread.  Women are accessing medical abortion on-line despite the risks of prosecution.  Secondly, contrary to original concerns, decriminalisation does not increase abortion rates.  Thirdly,  criminalisation impedes safety.  Finally, they argue that the UK is out of step with the rest of Europe. 

Law obstructs best clinical practice

Perhaps the key argument the editorial presents  is that the law obstructs best clinical practice and undermines reflective decision-making across the whole of the UK and is no longer appropriate.

Instead they suggest: “Future UK law could support conscientious reflection in abortion care more effectively by guaranteeing women access to the resources they need to make the ethical and practical choices which are theirs to make and live with.”

Resources currently used to police choice and access could be reallocated to offering counselling services to women who are unsure about whether to terminate their pregnancy or who face a wider life crisis, and ensuring they get prompt access to contraception.

There widespread public and cross-party parliamentary support for decriminalisation in the UK,  including in Northern Ireland.

UK government held to ransom by reliance on DUP support

However, the editorial acknowledges that Theresa May’s slim parliamentary majority depends on the support of Democratic and Unionist Party (DUP) MPs, who have threatened “consequences” if Mrs May were to offer her party a free vote on the matter.

Nevertheless, the editorial calls on the prime minister to "seize the moment" to “champion evidence based reform of an outdated, ineffective and unpopular law, with the backing of health professionals and public opinion in Great Britain and Northern Ireland”.

Act of political courage 

As the authors say: “To do so, despite the threats against her, would be a memorable act of courage and leadership.”

Report by: Ray Noble

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