In our Myth Busting Monday on the legality of sex selection abortion we explored what the the Abortion Act actually says. In this second part of our Abortion Law Special we explore whether it's time for a change in the law.
The current situation
Most health professionals recognise that women know best when a pregnancy is right for them and implement current law sensibly, ensuring that women can access safe abortion as quickly as possible if that is what they choose.
However, the Abortion Act didn’t legalise abortion. It only provides exceptions to an archaic criminal law. It says that abortion is not illegal if certain criteria are met, but doesn't give women any actual rights. The current law leaves women vulnerable to a small proportion of doctors who are keen to obstruct their access to abortion; and, as the latest press hoo hah demonstrates, leaves doctors vulnerable to criticism and at worst even prosecution, for the referral decisions they make.
Is it time for change?
We currently have an imperfect law which needs modernising according to all the leading sexual health organisations and the Science and Technology committee of Parliament.
There are improvements we could make to the Abortion Act many of which were proposed when abortion law was last discussed in Parliament in 2008. However, there is also a growing call for abortion to be taken out of the realm of criminal law and treated like any other health care procedure. Doctors would retain responsibility for checking that women have made a decision they are confident about and are able to give informed consent for the procedure. Women would finally have the right to make a decision that only they are really in a position to make.
This suggestion will no doubt be treated with shock. The doom-mongers will predict a gazillion extra abortions a year with women helpless to stop themselves demanding abortion after abortion - almost certainly for trivial reasons. However, Canada decriminalised abortion in 1988 and guess what? It hasn’t led to a huge boom in abortions. The abortion rate in Canada is 16 per 1,000 women just slightly lower than it is in England and Wales at 17.5 per 1,000. The same high proportion of abortions (around 90%) take place early – in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy – in both Britain and Canada. In fact if we decriminalised abortion in the Britain* I don’t think anything in the statistics would really change, it would just cause a massive sigh of relief amongst most doctors and most women, as the remaining obstacles to abortion and the stigma associated with it were finally lifted.
*Abortion in Northern Ireland is still governed by a criminal act of 1861 which means that women from Northern Ireland still have to travel to the mainland and pay for an abortion