Guest post: "Abortion must be decriminalised"
No woman should be prosecuted for ending her pregnancy, says Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service
British Pregnancy Advisory Service
Posted on: Tue 09-Feb-16 15:07:59
(759 comments )
In December, Natalie Towers, a young mother from Durham, was sentenced for ending her pregnancy at 32 weeks using pills she'd bought online.
When a woman feels she has no choice but to cause her own abortion in this way, you would hope that she would be viewed with compassion, and not treated as a criminal. Unfortunately, this is not the case: she was jailed for two-and-a-half years.
This tragic rare case highlights a broader issue that affects us all: from Belfast to Brighton, pregnant women's decisions about what to do with their own bodies are policed by the criminal law. In every nation of the UK a woman can go to prison for ending her own pregnancy without the legal authorisation of doctors – from the moment a fertilised egg implants.
The 1861 Offences Against the Person Act threatens life imprisonment to any woman who ends her own pregnancy. This is the harshest punishment for self-induced abortion of any country in Europe, bar the Republic of Ireland.
The 1967 Abortion Act is often seen as a victory of the women's rights movement, but it didn't actually overwrite the 1861 Act – rather, it opened up loopholes. Now, a woman is exempt from prosecution when two doctors certify that she meets certain criteria; most commonly that her mental or physical health would suffer if she were forced to continue her pregnancy. In other words, it is perfectly lawful for a woman to be forced to continue a pregnancy if doctors judge her able to cope with the child.
This law is not a deterrent, as any woman who feels desperate enough to try to end her own pregnancy will find a way to do so, and it cannot be seen as an appropriate punishment for a heinous crime, given that legal abortions are approved every day.
Women's agency is painted entirely out of the picture. Responsibility is turned over to doctors in a way that doesn't happen with any other routine medical procedure. While the work of committed medical professionals means that most women can get the abortion they need, this is beside the point. The criminalisation of abortion makes a mockery of the equal status that women fight for in every other area of life, represents discrimination against women, and stigmatises the one in three women who will have an abortion. Women should not have to battle outdated Victorian legislation for control over their reproductive rights.
Abortion is a medical procedure that has emancipated women, enabling them to have children at the time they think is right with the person of their choosing. It is accepted as a back-up when contraception fails, or when we fail to use it as well as we might; it is an established part of family planning, and is commissioned and funded by the NHS. It therefore makes no sense that it sits within a criminal framework. It runs entirely counter to all principles of bodily autonomy and patient-centred care to deny a woman the right to make her own decisions about whether to accept the physical imposition and risks posed by pregnancy and childbirth.
Our neighbours in France, Sweden and the Netherlands do not send women to prison for inducing their own miscarriages. Even Poland, where abortion is all but outlawed, does not prosecute women who cause their own abortions. The use of the criminal law to punish women in the UK serves no purpose. It is not a deterrent, as any woman who feels desperate enough to try to end her own pregnancy will find a way to do so, and it cannot be seen as an appropriate punishment for a heinous crime, given that legal abortions are approved every day.
Taking abortion out of the criminal law and regulating it like other healthcare services won't lead to unsafe care. Outside of the criminal law, abortion services are already tightly regulated, with regular inspections by the Care Quality Commission. Doctors, nurses and midwives work to strict guidelines and are bound by their professional bodies. Women do not currently turn to unqualified providers for any other form of NHS healthcare, and there is no reason why they would do so for termination services.
Taking abortion out of the criminal law would not lead to more women such as the young mother from Durham ending their pregnancies at home at 32 weeks, in the same way as keeping it there won't stop another woman in equally desperate straits from doing the same. But removing threats of prosecution and prison might make her more likely to seek help – and perhaps her story would have a different ending.
But above all, taking abortion out of the criminal law would be a statement of where we see women today – capable of making their own decisions in pregnancy as the ones who must carry the consequences of that pregnancy, whether it continues or ends. Changing this ancient law will be a symbol of just how far we have come since 1861.
Trust women to make the choice that is right for them. Please join the We Trust Women campaign today.
By Ann Furedi
That baby was perfectly healthy. She killed it. Yes, it was inside her, but I don't see what that has to do with it.
Or maybe you think that it should be legal for babies born at 32 weeks to be killed by their mothers?
I have met some people who think newborns aren't human.
The mind boggles.
Fucking hell. I'm stunned at this repulsive piece of crap. This woman should never have a public voice, let alone on the BPAS which I actually thought was a sane and reputable service.
Sorry but you have really shot yourself in the foot there using that example!
You point on abortion still being technically illegal albeit not in effect so precedent would probably win a rational case, is valid, but using that example means that I would rather have the current laws than risk that act repeating itself.
She had options, if she were mentally unwell surely she wouldn't have been tried as mentally stable. At 32 weeks she killed a baby.
I've had an abortion, it was right at the time, I protect the right to choose up to the legal limit. But she was utterly wrong at that late stage.
I think those first few responses demonstrate that you're never going to get that change in the law through. I know that full decriminalisation is a matter of unshakable philosophical principle for some women, but think you'd be much better off concentrating on campaigning for a reform of the law covering the first trimester, where you might be able to achieve some real good.
I'm not sure how I feel about this one, except a huge amount of compassion for the woman in the case. I've read a couple of reports and it sounds like she didn't know how far along she was, was very much in denial about being pregnant at all and probably wasn't the sharpest tool in the box to begin with. She may well have had mental health issues. All of which argues for compassion, but not necessarily for changes in the law to decriminalise what she did.
To be honest it doesn't seem to me that legalising abortion for women at any stage of pregnancy would have done anything to make that a less horrific situation. The girl would still have been in denial, not very bright, possibly mentally ill, and might well still have done something horrific at home rather than seeing a doctor. I also think that plenty of people who support the right to abortion feel instinctively revolted by the idea that it become too easy or socially-sanctioned as an option. Overall I think I'd agree with LadyIsabella that it might be better to address abortion in the first trimester.
I agree - to a certain extent.
The fact that healthcare professionals have to agree that a woman cannot cope with continuing a pregnancy is not to me the ideal way to deal with abortions. Rather, it should be the other way around. Healthcare professionals should ensure that no woman is being pressurised into the decision and that they understand what they are doing, but they shouldn't approve an abortion because they agree the woman can't cope, they should approve it because the woman is in sound mind to have made the decision. There is a big distinction between the two.
Personally I am for the raising of the legal limits for termination to birth. However I also strongly believe that this should go hand in hand with better support for women who decide in later pregnancy that they are no longer able to cope with having a baby so that other options can be considered. I understand the medical reasons for the 24 week limit but it will always be an arbitrary cut off point and some women and girls will miss that cut off and be in a very difficult situation. Removing the limit, as in other countries, does not mean to have to open the floodgates to thousands of women terminating pregnancies at a very late stage. But it may help with women who find themselves at 5+, 6+ months pregnant and in a difficult situation.
We, reading the news, don't know the full details of the case nor why she made this decision, which makes it very difficult to comment. She may not have been mentally unwell in a way that would offer leniency in sentencing, but there was clearly something else going on as to why she felt the need to end the pregnancy at such a late stage.
I support this campaign but I fear it won't be popular. The legal time limit for abortions is always a hotly debated topic. I think the objections to this campaign will focus on the time limit issues, which is a shame, because whether we remove or extend the time limit or not, it's a travesty that a woman has to get permission from two doctors before she can get an abortion.
Cross post. I agree with you Thurlow.
I had started to write my post, but Thurlow has put it more eloquently than I would have done
Agree completely with the post. And agree with Thurlow about support for women.
"This woman should never have a public voice..." Just no. Women are routinely silenced all the time. Women should absolutely be heard with regards this vital issue. The fact that these laws exist are an indication that women aren't trusted. And that attitude is towards every single woma, even those of you who feel you've made 'right' choices about your pregnancy.
Surely the number of women wanting or needing a termination past 24ish weeks is tiny (I'm not using this as an arguement to not change the limit) and of those women I would imagine most will be making the decision for very traumatic reasons.
I cannot believe that anyone just happens to get to 32 weeks then suddenly thinks 'actually I've changed my mind I don't fancy a baby right now'. More than likely these women will be ones just over 24 weeks who have not managed to get referrals in time or have developed other traumatic issues in the time of the pregnancy.
It's really difficult to think about a baby at 32 weeks being terminated (for want of a better phrase) but that woman and others like her must be in dire situations.
Someone linked a really interesting article about 32 reasons not to lower the limit on the recent abortion thread. Some of those women's stories broke my heart.
Unsurprisingly, I agree with Manatee
In this instance, we can feel compassion and I'd agree, I think, that jailing the woman was not the best option. But really, at 32 weeks, what options were there?
I think the best option for a change in the law - which certainly sounds well overdue would be to give women free choice up to the current legal limit (linked to viability)
I think beyond that opinion will be much more divided.
My own personal view, for myself, is fairly pro-life but I think it has to be a woman's choice. So I'm pro-choice too.
Shocking that from the sound of things a woman could technically be given a life sentence for inducing an early abortion for herself, under the terms of the 1861 Act.
Surely time to take a fresh look at the 1861 Act from scratch, not just make amendments to it.
But what changes would you actually make, Juggling?
I agree that the onus should be on the woman to state she doesn't wish to continue with the pregnancy but I have to admit the thought of abortions over 24 weeks seems very drastic. I fully accept the cases where women end up in this position are drastic, but it doesn't sit very comfortably with me.
I would just change it to any woman can choose to have an abortion up to 24 weeks, not it needing to be justified by the judgement of two doctors that she wouldn't be able to cope - so as in the first part of Thurlow's post I think
I guess I think there are two main issues here, and it seems a shame to me to mix and muddy them, as then less likely to get the change in principle about women's autonomy over their own bodies. Which many people would support I think.
I understand that totally - but in practice, that's more or less what happens now.
Yes, I guess I feel it's the outdated principles that most need changing.
But I think if you changed those, and recognised women's autonomy over their own bodies in the law, that you might change practice too in a positive way - with better access and use of contraception for a start, and where abortion is needed for this generally to happen earlier and under more positive conditions.
I agree with you and the campaign, but the response here is sadly predictable.
This is disgusting. It makes my heart hurt to read this post. At 32 weeks there are other options. Fucking adoption?!?! Seriously...babies are human beings!
You lose free choice when you are carrying another human inside you with a voice that deserves to be heard.
This makes me sick.
My beautiful baby boy was born at 27+5. He stayed in NICU for 6 weeks with very minimal intetvention. Tube feeding, warmth and caffeine. That's all.
He's now a bright, bounding, hilarious, inquisitive, caring 4 year old.
He is not an exception to the rule by any means.
32 weeks is murder.
A woman being jailed for ending her own pregnancy is disgusting.
I'm shocked that it's a criminal offence to end your own pregnancy even within the legal limit. Yes we must keep women safe but we don't do that by punishing them.
The legal limit is stupid and arbitrary. Abortion should be on demand at any point. I'm so sad that this woman has been jailed for making a choice over her own body.