UK abortion law: why we need to legalise abortion in England, Wales and Scotland

The 1967 Abortion Act did not repeal a Victorian law which means women in Britain still don’t have bodily autonomy, writes Harriet Clugston

Last week millions of women in Texas saw their rights rolled back by decades.

The highest court in the land failed to block the backwards, impossibly restrictive ‘Heartbeat Act’, which bans abortions after six weeks.

In practice, the move outlaws abortion full stop, given the likelihood of unwanted pregnancies going unnoticed beyond this point.

And as award-winning science writer Caroline Criado Perez points out, the fact that the start of a pregnancy is backdated to your last period means a woman may only have been truly pregnant for four weeks by the time she’s classed as six weeks gone.

In putting a spotlight back on abortion rights, the abominable situation in Texas reminds women everywhere about the fragility of their rights, and the need not only to safeguard them but to fight for improvements.

You may not know abortion is illegal in Britain. After all, last year 210,000 abortions were carried out in England and Wales, and nearly 14,000 in Scotland.

But abortion is not legal – at least not in the true sense of the word.

Aborting a fetus is criminalised in England and Wales by a little known piece of Victorian legislation, the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, and in Scotland by common law.

In 1967, the Abortion Act was brought in in England, Wales and Scotland.

It introduced certain grounds in which an abortion can be carried out – but it never repealed the Victorian law, which still applies to this day.

Other than for fetal abnormality, pregnant women, trans men and non-binary people can only get an abortion if continuing the pregnancy would risk their physical or mental health, or that of any existing children they have.

No fewer than two doctors must weigh in and sign off that these criteria have been met.

My body, my choice? Not quite.

That also means abortion still sits within the sphere of criminal law – those who procure a termination without two doctors’ say-so could face “penal servitude for life”. That is something that should disturb women everywhere.

It was repealing the 1861 legislation that secured Northern Irelanders access to abortion in 2020.

The 1967 Act never applied there, so in a funny twist of fate, women in Northern Ireland now enjoy better abortion rights than the rest of the UK (actual access is another kettle of fish though, as women there have discovered since the law was repealed).

In practice, doctors in Britain may take a fairly flexible approach to signing off procedures. It seems unlikely women seeking abortions will be made to jump through particularly difficult hoops to prove they are at risk.

And given the fact that childbirth is a risky business (particularly for Black women, who suffer worse outcomes than white women), how hard can it be to argue continuing a pregnancy poses a risk of injury, compared to ending it?

Women in the USA have been left horrified by the rolling back of abortion rights in TexasWomen in the USA have been left horrified by the rolling back of abortion rights in Texas
Women in the USA have been left horrified by the rolling back of abortion rights in Texas

But we either have control over our bodies, or we don’t. And right now, we don’t.

The restrictions placed on abortions by the 1967 Act stand in the way of modernising today’s system of reproductive healthcare.

The two-doctor sign off process – surely unique in the world of medicine – causes needless delays. It leads to preventable scarcity of provision for women living in rural areas, discriminating against those who cannot travel far or take time off work.

Women seeking to keep their terminations secret from their families, or even abusive partners, are faced with a logistical nightmare. Those with complex medical problems can be locked out of having abortions, if they haven’t accessed specialist care before 24 weeks.

It poses an obstacle for moving forwards (and not backwards, as one man, Sajid Javid, has the power to do) on at-home early abortions with safe and effective pills.

These are problems that may be avoided with midwife or nurse-led care, and by allowing women to undergo treatment at home.

Clearly, the situation in Texas is a desperate one for women. We shouldn’t downplay their suffering by suggesting we’re in any way in the same boat – but neither should we satisfy ourselves with our status quo.

It’s time to fight for our bodily autonomy. No questions asked.

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