Guest post: “The aim of my Bill is to stop women facing the criminal courts for decisions about their own bodies”
Diana Johnson MP is introducing a Bill to decriminalise abortion across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In this guest post she explains what motivates her and how this Bill will protect women.
Labour MP for Hull North
Posted on: Wed 17-Oct-18 10:26:06
(47 comments )
Imagine finding out that your 15-year-old daughter is pregnant and that her abusive partner has threatened to ‘kick the baby out and stab it if it is born’. Imagine feeling like you have no other option but to buy your daughter abortion tablets online. Imagine seeking support for her from your family doctor concerning the abusive relationship - not the abortion. And then imagine facing a potential prison sentence for trying to help your daughter access medical care and treatment which is denied to her by the government.
Or, imagine how Denise felt when she was told midway through her pregnancy that her baby had Edwards Syndrome and wouldn’t survive. Very ill and unable to travel, Denise was forced to continue with her pregnancy. She was repeatedly asked about her baby and her due date and this, she says, left her feeling tortured. ‘Every minute, every second of the day - you have to live with the knowledge that the child inside you is going to die.’
Emma was just 18 years old when she found out at 20 weeks that her baby had anencephaly and wouldn’t survive. She couldn’t face traveling to England for an abortion because she wanted to be surrounded by her family. She had to continue the pregnancy to term, and was eventually induced to give birth to her stillborn daughter.
These are three real life examples of what women in Northern Ireland face under the current law on abortion, which dates back to 1861. Abortion is underpinned by the oldest legal framework of any healthcare treatment and the law is out of date and certainly unfit for purpose when dealing with advances in women’s healthcare and society.
To be clear, if any woman uses abortion tablets bought over the internet in England or Wales she too is committing a criminal offence, punishable by life imprisonment, due to a law that’s nearly 160 years old. It’s often the most vulnerable women who find it difficult to access termination services and who will resort to buying online.
Women on Web, a doctor-led online medical service, says that 16% of women cite domestic or ‘honour’ violence, and 8% intimate partner violence, as reasons for seeking help on the internet. Often women impregnated by rape are prevented from accessing contraception by their abusers. If they do seek an abortion, women made pregnant through rape can face the possibility of a tougher criminal punishment than the perpetrator – the real criminal.
A Victorian law based on misogynist stigma was always wrong. In the internet age it's also ineffective.
Whether in Belfast, Bangor or Bath, women need a modern, humane, properly regulated medical regime that encourages and supports women to come forward to access the best professional advice and treatment - not drive them, scared and isolated, into the unregulated market of pills obtained over the internet.
A Victorian law based on misogynist stigma was always wrong. In the internet age it’s also ineffective. I believe that it’s time to stop women in England, Wales and particularly Northern Ireland from being criminalised for accessing what is essentially healthcare.
The 1967 Abortion Act gave a route for women in England and Wales to access abortion care, setting out specific exemptions and conditions under which an abortion can take place legally. These included the need for signatures from two doctors agreeing, for example, that termination is necessary to prevent permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman.
The 1967 Act, however, has never applied to Northern Ireland.
This June, the Supreme Court agreed that Northern Ireland’s current abortion laws breach women’s human rights
That’s why I’m introducing a Bill this month, supported by MPs from five Westminster parties, to decriminalise abortion across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It has the backing from top professional bodies, such as the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Royal College of Midwives; and human rights groups such as Amnesty International.
With the Northern Ireland Assembly not sitting since January 2017, the Westminster Parliament now has a duty to act. UK politicians shouldn’t look the other way while vulnerable women in Northern Ireland, often in desperate circumstances, have their human rights breached.
Polling released on 10th October 2018 by Amnesty International shows that 65% of people in Northern Ireland believe that access should be decriminalised ‘by removing the criminal penalty for women who have abortions’.
My Bill would ensure that up to 24 weeks, women and clinicians would no longer be subject to the criminal law. However, decriminalisation wouldn’t mean the deregulation of abortion services. Instead, it would mean more effective regulation.
The existing vast body of law and professional standards governing medical procedures would be in play to ensure safe and effective termination services. So, for example, it would remain a crime to offer abortion services without being registered to do so, while anyone supplying the medication needed for a medical abortion without a legal prescription would breach the Human Medicines Regulations 2012.
My Bill will also strengthen protection for women. Anyone - an abusive partner for example - who ends a pregnancy against a woman’s wishes through violence, or administering abortion pills without the woman’s knowledge, would be subject to a life sentence. My Bill also protects those doctors and nurses who conscientiously object to abortion and this right would be extended to Northern Ireland.
The aim of my Bill is simple: to stop women facing the criminal courts for decisions about their own bodies.
You can show support for women in Northern Ireland like those at the start of this article by e-mailing your MP and asking them to back my Bill: nowforni.uk/take-action/.
By Diana Johnson
Thank you. I hope that this reasonable and compassionate bill is supported by all parties.
I was denied an abortion by a doctor who stated he was a member of Life, and that if I tried to change doctors he would 'lose' my notes.
So while I agree that medical staff cannot be forced to take part in abortions, I don't think they should have the right to deny women access to another doctor.
I will contact my MP to ask him to support this bill, but he ignores my emails as I oppose self ID.
excellent, its vital that all women in the UK have access to compassionate and supportive services
I'm horrified to hear of your experience upstart I thought they had to refer to another Dr
I have emailed my MP too but she also ignores me as she agrees with Self ID. That or she is cowardly toeing the Labour Party line.
Thank you for all the work you have put into this. I support it wholeheartedly. Your piece puts the arguments very well. This conversation can become very toxic and it must be a thankless task putting yourself in the middle of it. Thank you.
Also, I will not only email my MP but I'm seeing her soon and will bring this up.
Thank you for doing this. I wholeheartedly support this Bill and hope it goes through.
Thank you Diana for speaking up for women.
As a woman in NI who's ttc, I really appreciate this.
Such an important bill. Thank you Diana Johnson and good luck in progressing this.
Rusty they do have to refer on to another doctor. If I, as another doctor, heard about this from a patient I would strongly advise them to complain to the GMC, even if it was some time ago. They will take it seriously.
Upstart I am so sorry this happened to you, and I hope you found another route to termination or at least are at peace with the outcome of the pregnancy
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