Speaking of abortion

24 Sep


Well, maybe we weren’t…But have you heard about the one about the right to an abortion in the UK?

I know, I know, abortions are permitted in the UK under the Abortion Act 1967 – I know. Although the Act might have been considered liberal at the time it was introduced, the law on abortion in the UK is starting to look a little shabby around the edges now. First point to note, the Abortion Act doesn’t apply to the whole of the UK. Abortion is still illegal in Northern Ireland. Case law has recognised the exception to allow an abortion where necessary to protect the mother’s life or to prevent real and serious adverse effect to her physical and mental health. But otherwise it’s a criminal offence. Sentiments on this still run high, as noted by recent comments from the politician next in line for the post ofhealth minister that women who suffer a sexual assault must not be exempt from the strict laws banning abortion in Northern Ireland.

So, in England, Wales and Scotland then, under the Abortion Act before 24 weeks women do not have a “right” to an abortion. An abortion is permitted, but not a right, where continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family. Also, not one, but two registered medical practitioners have to sign off on. Extremely bureaucratically restrictive, as well as substantively restricting the right. As well, it’s different again in Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man.

As this isn’t a right, acts outside this restrictive perimeter would be against the law and therefore illegal. And there’s a group of crimes on the statute book that you could be charged if you do try to end your pregnancy, such as sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Persons Act or the Infant Life (Preservation) 1929. These crimes are not a relic of statute long forgotten and never used. Granted, they aren’t used often, but when they are oh how they show what a cracked and warped regime it is. Last week, one woman was jailed for 8 years under section 58 of the OAPA. Eight years for taking drugs at 39 weeks pregnant to induce early labour. There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the judgement, not least the remarks of the judge, which are available here, as well as the extensive prison sentence handed down. Shan’t repeat them here, you can read them yourself. But do read them if you have the chance. His remarks do highlight the problems with the UK law as it stands: that by having an incomplete and qualified right to abortion under UK law and not reforming the criminal law so it is archaic with no recognition of the social and mental issues so clearly at play, women will be the subject of these out-dated and inappropriate views where they do not have a place. I’m still flabbergasted myself.

Although pregnant women in the UK cannot choose to subject their own bodies to a specific treatment in this respect, they do have the right to refuse treatment, recognised strongly in St George’s Healthcare NHS Trust v S [1998] 3 All ER 673 (CA):

Although human, and protected by the law in a number of different ways … an unborn child is not a separate person from its mother. Its need for medical assistance does not prevail over her rights. She is entitled not to be forced to submit to an invasion of her body against her will, whether her own life or that of her unborn child depends on it. Her right is not reduced or diminished merely because her decision to exercise it may appear morally repugnant.”

It’s also interesting to compare this to Sweden. There, women have a right to an abortion up to 18 weeks in the pregnancy, unless it would be a danger to the mother’s life. After 18 weeks, abortion is allowed only if permitted by Socialstyrelsen (the National Board of Health and Welfare). It can only be permitted if there are very strong reasons for an abortion and can’t if there is reason to believe the foetus could survive on its own. Socialstyrelsen guidance on this points to 22 weeks, but this is limit is not specified in the legislation. Before the end of the 18 weeks, if a doctor decides that an abortion would be a danger to the mother’s health, this decision must immediately be subjected to a decision by Socialstyrelsen. In practice, this mean the doctor doesn’t have the power to deny the woman’s right on their own; that decision is subject to a further decision by Socialstyrelsen which must be in agreement to deny the woman the right. At any time, if there is a serious danger to woman’s life and health, Socialstyrelsen can give permission regardless of how many weeks into the pregnancy. According to a government inquiry in 2005, a woman who has an illegal abortion cannot be criminally punished.

We could go on forever discussing the differences and best ways to legislate a woman’s right to an abortion. But really, is criminalising the mother the best way to deal with the fact that she resorted to such methods on her own physical person to end her pregnancy? Surely someone can see the gap here! But the very depressing thing is that with the state of UK politics at the moment, the law we have is probably the best we’ll see in a long time – the risk of trying to change it risks abandoning any right at all.

If you didn’t hear the one about abortion in the UK, it makes a mockery of women’s rights.

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3 Responses to “Speaking of abortion”

  1. Ulysses Formiga September 26, 2012 at 11:22 pm #

    And, continuing about abortion, I have good news: the federal camber of Uruguay approved today (by 50 votes against 49) a law that decriminalizes abortion. The law goes to the Senate now (in which the newspapers say it will pass with a greater majority than one vote). The law is quite strict, letting the decision to a collective organ, but hey, this is South America. I can say how advance this law project feels for A Brazilian.

  2. Johan Ekman September 30, 2012 at 7:24 pm #

    @Ulysses, that is wonderful news!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Black List | delusions of equality - March 19, 2013

    […] I ever do and actually believe it’s my right. Though, I realize abortion is not a right here, this post I believe illustrates greatly some of the issues around abortion in this […]

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