This year marks the 40th anniversary of a vote, which transformed women’s lives. The 1967 Abortion Act effectively put an end to decades of dangerous back-street abortions in Britain. It saved the lives and health of thousands of women and to this day remains fundamental to women’s autonomy and equality.
Four decades on, a staggering 83 per cent of UK citizens agree that a woman should have the right to have an abortion. But unlike many of their European sisters, British women do not have the right to choose, per se. Under the 1967 Act they require the permission of two doctors before they can access the procedure - a process that can lead to delays for women at a vulnerable time. Women in Northern Ireland are excluded altogether.
Kat Stark’s experience illustrates the unnecessary barriers women continue to face when needing to access an abortion - “The first doctor I went to refused to refer me for an abortion. He kept asking me how I had gotten pregnant and eventually told me to leave the surgery and think about it for a while - even though I was totally sure about what I wanted to do. It was a week before I realised that I was entitled to go and seek another opinion.”
Forty years on it surely is time for a law that trusts women with this very personal and sometimes difficult decision. Abortion Rights, the national pro-choice campaign, wanted to know whether this situation is supported by people in Britain and commissioned an NOP opinion poll to examine this. It found that a clear majority (52 per cent) believe that a woman seeking an abortion should need the approval of either one or of no doctor at all, indicating that there is a growing appetite for reforming the law.
The results echo the views from the medical profession - the British Medical Association, The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Royal College of Nursing - who unanimously support the removal of two doctors’ signatures in the first trimester.
So all is well you would think. Not so. As we prepare to celebrate women’s hard fought for rights and advocate for reform and better service provision, a vociferous anti-choice minority is plugging away to turn the clock back. But its disingenuous and relentless focus on later abortion and fetal viability is likely to be exposed in the Commons Science and Technology Committee report to be published next week.
Later abortions are rare – less than two per cent of the total – and are desperately needed by women facing difficult circumstances: women who weren’t showing any pregnancy signs, women who were using contraception, young women in denial, women who discover at the 20 week scan that the foetus was severely impaired, women who suffer domestic violence, women who are delayed by the system and the list goes on. This tactic of focusing on later abortion, the least common of abortion procedures, is part of a step by step approach to making all abortion illegal.
But criminalising abortion does not make it go away, it makes it unsafe and it kills women - 68,000 die every year worldwide. A recent Guttemacher Institute & World Health Organisation study published in the Lancet showed very clearly that abortion occurs at approximately the same rate where it is broadly legal as where it is highly restricted by law.
In countries, such as Belgium and Holland, where more liberal abortion laws go hand is hand with comprehensive sex and relationships education and easy access to contraception and emergency contraception, the incidence of abortion is lower. Anyone with a serious interest in reducing the number of unintended pregnancies should follow that lead.
In the next few months abortion rights will be debated in Parliament as part of the government’s Human Tissue and Embryos Bill. Now is the time for the quieter majority to be heard and for our elected representatives to ensure that women’s rights to self-determination are recognised and better protected through progressive reform of the abortion law.