While the Republic of Ireland prepares for a referendum on the 8th amendment, British activists are gearing up to fight their own battle for liberalisationby Sian Norris / April 12, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
At the end of May, Ireland is set to become the latest European country to legalise abortion. A referendum to repeal the country’s 8th Amendment could lead to the end of restrictive laws which, according to the United Nations, violate women’s human rights. That would leave just two European nations where abortion remains illegal: Malta and Northern Ireland. But there are three other nations in Europe that retain highly restrictive laws which criminalise abortion unless performed under certain circumstances. And one of those is Great Britain.
There is a widespread assumption in this country that the 1967 Abortion Act, part of Roy Jenkins’s raft of reforms which created the “permissive society,” decriminalised abortion in England, Scotland and Wales. That’s not strictly accurate. The 1967 Act provided exemptions under which women would not be prosecuted according to the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act.
The fact that abortion remains governed by a Victorian criminal law makes us an outlier from the rest of the developed world. As Clare Murphy at leading abortion services charity British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) explains, “even in countries where abortion is restricted, it is highly unusual for women’s reproductive rights to be so firmly placed in criminal law.”
So, what do the current laws look like? In Britain, women can access an abortion up to 24 weeks. Up until 1991, the upper-time limit was 28 weeks. That’s liberal compared to countries like France and Italy, where abortion is available “on demand” up to 12 weeks and under restricted conditions afterwards.
But unlike those countries where abortion is not governed by criminal law, in Britain there are strict guidelines on how and where any termination can be performed. For example, in England and Wales women cannot take advantage of new technologies and use an abortion pill in their own home. (Introduced in the early 1990s, the method can be used up to 10 weeks, and in effect induces an early miscarriage, meaning no surgery is required.)