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Dr Rick Thomas

Diana Johnson’s Bill could return women to the perils of ‘back street’ abortion days

Dr Rick Thomas is a Public Policy Researcher at CMF.
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of CMF.

Today, 23 October 2018, Diana Johnson MP introduced a Ten Minute Rule Bill to decriminalise abortion in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland (NI). The bill was given leave to proceed to a Second Reading by 208 votes to 123. (179 Labour MPs voted for the bill and 108 Tory MPs voted against so the vote fell along party lines except that whilst over 80% of 229 Labour MPs voted, only 37% of 330 Tories did so.)

Presently, in these jurisdictions, abortion remains a criminal offence, except in circumstances that meet the terms of the 1967 Abortion Act (that does not apply in NI). Still on the statute book is the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA), that recognised the unborn child as a person and made any woman ending the life of the baby she carried guilty of a crime punishable by life imprisonment. Diana Johnson’s Bill advocates amendment and repeal of various sections of the OAPA in order to decriminalise abortion.

Prior to the 1967 Act, some desperate women sought the help of ‘back street’ abortionists, with sometimes catastrophic results in terms of haemorrhage, infection and even loss of life. The Abortion Act provided a legal means of terminating a pregnancy, on certain prescribed grounds. In practice the Act has been interpreted very loosely to provide, in effect, ‘abortion on demand’ in England and Wales. (98% of abortions are currently carried out on supposed mental health grounds.)

The momentum to decriminalise abortion is not therefore being driven by the need to make access to abortion easier (except in NI). It is the demand for autonomy – that women should have absolute sovereign choice over what happens to their bodies – that is the driver. Ann Furedi, CEO of BPAS, who has helped lead the campaign behind the bill, put it this way: ‘…abortion must be fully decriminalised and women finally trusted to make their own reproductive choices for themselves’. Until birth, a child is viewed as a human non-person whose continued existence must depend on the mother’s choice.

Diana Johnson’s Bill would ensure that:

  • abortion up to 24 weeks was no longer a crime
  • after 24 weeks, healthcare professionals would remain subject to the same restrictions as those contained in the current law
  • no crime would be committed by a woman who ends her own pregnancy at any stage (emphasis added)

Gone would be the legal requirements that two doctors certify an abortion and that it be performed under the supervision of a registered medical practitioner, for any abortion up to 24 weeks. Gone would be the legal protection against online suppliers of abortion pills or equipment to undertake ‘DIY’ abortions. And gone would be any fear of prosecution for a woman undertaking to abort her baby at any point in her pregnancy up to birth.

To suggest that these ‘reforms’ are in the best interests of women (not to mention their babies) beggars belief.  In reality, they would imperil the safety of women, particularly those undertaking DIY procedures in late pregnancy: the calamitous outcomes of botched attempts, the unintended live births at home of pre-term but still viable babies, the 999 calls for hospital admission. Scaremongering, or just the inevitable dark side of Diana Johnson’s brave new world?

Will any of those mothers pressing for change in the law pause to remember when, in their own pregnancies, they began to bond with the babies they were carrying? When the test went blue? When someone handed them a 12-week scan picture? When they first felt the baby moving? Ann Furedi asks those women to believe that the life of the baby they carry is of less worth than their own, self-aware, choice-making life and is therefore disposable. Such mental and emotional gymnastics can take a toll on some but, if the proposals in Diana Johnson’s Bill were ever to become law, gone would be any unbiased setting in which to discuss such risks.

Not only are these proposals unsafe for women, they are also unwanted by the majority of women. A recent ComRes poll found that:

  • 70% of women think the current 24-week limit should be reduced further reduced;
  • 93% of women agree that a woman considering abortion should have a legal right to independent counselling from a source that has no financial interest in her decision;
  • 84% of women agree women who want to continue with their pregnancies, but are under financial pressure to have an abortion, should be given more support.

It remains to be seen whether or not this Bill will lead to a change in the law -Ten Minute Rule Bills generally run out of parliamentary time. But the outcome of today’s vote may encourage its backers to attempt to impose abortion on NI against the express wishesof the people there, taking advantage of the temporary suspension in the functioning of the NI Assembly.

Any move to decriminalise abortion on either side of the Irish Sea will imperil the very women it purports to liberate and make the womb an even more perilous place for the unborn than it is already.

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