5 reasons why abortion must be decriminalised in Britain

Petrol Girls vocalist Ren Aldridge and campaigner (and Kerrang! Award winner) Janey Starling break down the reasons why it’s time to decriminalise abortion in Great Britain.

5 reasons why abortion must be decriminalised in Britain
Ren Aldridge and Janey Starling
Jade Jackman and Janey Starling

Last month, Carla Foster, a mum of three, was sentenced to prison for self-administering an abortion. Her case has brought Great Britain’s arcane abortion laws into public view – along with calls from MPs, health experts and women’s charities to decriminalise abortion.

Decriminalising abortion simply means treating it as the healthcare procedure it is and never as a criminal offence. Here are five reasons why that needs to happen…

1To leave the Victorian era

Many people are not actually aware that in Britain, abortion is illegal unless you have the permission of two doctors (Ren even went through the entire process of having an abortion without this knowledge!). This makes Britain far more conservative in its abortion access than many other countries in Europe, where abortion is available on demand. In other words, in countries like Sweden or the Netherlands, it is actually your choice, not the doctor’s.

This is because in Britain, self-administering an abortion without a doctor’s permission is still considered a crime, due to the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act, which considers ‘procuring an abortion’ punishable by prison, with a potential life sentence. This law was literally created in Victorian times, a period renowned and ridiculed for its prudish attitudes to sex. It was created by men before women even had the right to vote, and long before the NHS even existed. To say it’s outdated is an understatement.

The World Health Organization has called for abortion to be removed from criminal law globally. Australia, Canada and Northern Ireland have already done this and it’s time for Britain to catch up.

2Criminalising something doesn’t stop it happening – it just makes it unsafe

We should all know by now that criminalising something doesn’t stop it from happening – just look at our drug laws! Countries with strict abortion laws actually have roughly the same rate of abortion in countries where it is permitted. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service also clearly state that, in countries where abortion has been decriminalised, “This has not caused an increase in the rates of abortion, or the proportion which take place at later gestations.”

Criminalising something just makes it unsafe. In fact, the Royal College of Gynaecologists and Obstetricians and Royal College of Midwives wrote to the judge in Carla Foster’s case to express their concern that issuing a prison sentence “may signal to other women who access tele-medical abortion services, or who experience later gestation deliveries, that they risk imprisonment if they seek medical care.”

We cannot put people off calling 999 if they have a medical emergency! Nobody should have to worry about the law when seeking healthcare.

39/10 adults are pro-choice

The vast majority of people in the UK are supportive of abortion, with nine in 10 UK adults identifying as pro-choice.

However, it is not truly our choice if we have to seek permission from doctors, the state, or anyone else to make decisions about our own bodies. If we truly support the right to choose, then we must remove any obstacles in the way – especially outdated criminal laws.

4Healthcare should never be policed

For too long, abortion has been considered a moral debate, rather than a simple fact of life. As long as people can get pregnant, they will seek abortions. One in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime. If you haven’t had an abortion yourself, you will know and love someone who has – even if you don’t know about their abortion.

Tragically, there are also many wanted pregnancies that end in abortion for health reasons. It’s time to reframe pro-choice to pro-healthcare because this is ultimately what is at stake. The alternative can be fatal, as in the case of Dorota Lalik, a Polish woman who recently died because she was denied a life-saving abortion due to Poland’s restrictive abortion laws.

The British abortion laws are clearly not as restrictive as Poland's, but they still give the state the power to police our pregnancies. Alarmingly, this is starting to happen more and more, with police investigations into suspected illegal abortions having more than tripled in the last 10 years. Just last year, a woman was held in police custody 36 hours after having a stillbirth.

It’s time to knock this increasing state control of pregnancy on its head, and fully remove abortion from criminal law.

5Anti-abortion lobbyists don’t actually care about children – but we do

Anti-abortion lobbyists try to pit those who are pro-choice against mothers and families, which makes zero sense given that over half of those who have abortions in the UK are already mothers. If abortion is punishable by prison, mothers like Carla Foster will continue to be sent to prison and separated from their children. To the benefit of absolutely no-one.

If anti-abortion lobbyists really cared about children’s lives, not just controlling our bodies, then they would be directing their energy elsewhere. One in four children in the UK are living in poverty – why don’t they do something about that? Or campaign to scrap the two-child limit on welfare benefits? Why don’t they support campaigns to stop maternity discrimination, or to increase paternity leave, so parents are actually supported to bring a child into the world?

The movement for Reproductive Justice, of which decriminalising abortion is just one part, also fights for those who do choose to reproduce to be supported in doing so, and for safe, sustainable communities in which children can thrive.

This is not just about abortion: it’s about state control of our bodies

We’re living through a political moment where we must remain clear-sighted on what’s at stake: our bodily autonomy. Bodily autonomy means that your body is your own. It means that you alone have the right to make life-changing decisions about your body and access to the means to carry out those decisions.

Abortion is never just about abortion: it’s an indicator of whether we want to be a progressive society that trusts people to make their own decisions about their bodies and consequently, their lives. Why don’t we stop agonising over the basics and instead make sure everyone has free access to the healthcare they need to make their own reproductive decisions – whether that’s abortion, IVF, or egg or sperm freezing.

No-one should get to decide what happens to someone else’s body – whether that’s abortion rights or trans rights – especially not the state. It’s weird, it’s controlling, and it has devastating consequences. Forcing someone to give birth – or to die because they are unable to access an abortion – is a hideous political position to uphold.

Decriminalising abortion is an urgent and necessary step forwards for society.

If you agree, join the Level Up campaign now.

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