Abortion should be no more complicated and no more stigmatised than any other regulated medical procedure, says Katherine O’Brien from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service. Why do we still not trust women?
One of my favourite lines from one of my favourite TV show, Veep, comes when the American vice-president, played by Julia Dreyfus, is trying to find a politically expedient way to answer the ‘pro-choice or pro-life’ question. Exasperated by the whole thing, she concludes, “If men got pregnant, you could get an abortion at the ATM.”
As someone who loses their debit card around once a month, I’m not sure the ATM thing would work well for me. But I do think the VP raises a valid point. Women’s bodies are regulated – indeed taxed – in a way that would be completely unfathomable if applied to men.
Thankfully, abortion is not politicised to anywhere near the same degree here in the UK; it is unlikely we will see the next candidate for Conservative Party leader accosting a group of school kids with a presentation about the sanctity of life. We should be under no illusion about the regressive nature of our abortion laws, however, because in every country in the UK, women can face life imprisonment for ending a pregnancy.
Our law seems like a relic of a bygone era. And it is. In 1861, an all-male parliament elected by an all-male electorate passed The Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA) which made “procuring a miscarriage” a criminal offence, punishable by up to life in prison.
The 1967 Abortion Act was a tremendous achievement, yet it did not repeal the OAPA. Instead it set out certain grounds under which women could legally end a pregnancy – for example, if their mental health was at risk – and only if two doctors believed it would be in the woman’s best interest. Women in the UK do not have the right to choose – we just have the right to ask.
That is why bpas, and a string of women’s rights and healthcare organisations, have launched the We Trust Women campaign to overturn this patriarchal law and decriminalise abortion.
The reason why this campaign is so important is both ideological and practical. It is a matter of principle because our law should support women’s right to full bodily autonomy. We believe that women are best placed to make decisions about their own bodies and their own lives. The only person who should have the right to decide whether a woman should end a pregnancy is the woman herself.
“Two women are currently facing prosecution for buying abortion medication online in Northern Ireland, including one mother who bought the medication for her young daughter who could not travel to England for help.”
But aside from the ideological implications of this law, there is also something deeply frightening about the idea that a medical procedure that one in three women will require in their lifetime still carries a potential prison sentence.
While most women in the UK, with the notable exception of Northern Ireland, are able to access abortion care, we know that is not possible for everyone. We know that some women, in incredibly difficult and complicated circumstances, resort to buying abortion medication online.
Rebecca Gomperts, founder of Women on Web, a service which provides abortion medication online, hears from women in the UK in the most desperate situations. She recently spoke of one 15-year-old who couldn’t get to a clinic to seek help because she was unable to leave the house without a chaperone. Under our draconian abortion law, this girl could face prison if she took her health into her own hands.
And women in the UK are being imprisoned under this law. Just before Christmas, a young mum from Durham with a history of psychological problems was sentenced to three years in prison for ending a pregnancy using pills bought online. Two women are currently facing prosecution for buying abortion medication online in Northern Ireland, including one mother who bought the medication for her young daughter who could not travel to England for help. Is prison the correct response to any of these situations?
“There is something deeply frightening about the idea that a medical procedure that one in three women will require in their lifetime still carries a potential prison sentence.”
Decriminalising abortion means everything and nothing. It means everything in the sense that it overturns patriarchal assumptions about women’s ability to make rational choices, and gives women full autonomy over their own bodies.
But it also changes nothing in the sense that, as we have learned from the experience of countries that have decriminalised abortion such as Canada, the abortion rate doesn’t rise, and women don’t suddenly turn to backstreet abortionists. It just puts the decision to end a pregnancy back in the hands of those who are best placed to make it – women.
Accessing abortion will never be as easy as accessing an ATM. We can’t even get the morning-after pill off the shelf. But accessing abortion should be no more difficult, no more complicated, and no more stigmatised than any other regulated medical procedure that a woman will undergo in her lifetime. If we trust women, we must remove abortion from the criminal law.3933 Views
Katherine O’Brien is media and public policy manager at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas), a not-for-profit charity which advocates for women’s reproductive choice and provides services across the UK.