The historic 1967 Abortion Act is 50 years old this month, yet this fundamental part of women’s health care continues to be a fiercely contested issue. There are still politicians who want to turn back the clock and win support for complete opposition to all abortions in any circumstances. Tory MP Jacob Rees Mogg declared this as his view only last month, although his position was swiftly undermined by revelations that he profits from shares in a pharmaceutical company that produces abortion pills.

Rees Mogg’s desire to deny women any rights to legal abortion is a minority one in Britain. Here a clear majority, 70 percent in the most recent British Attitudes Survey, support a woman’s right to choose. But there is no room for complacency when women in one part of the UK, Northern Ireland, have no right to abortion unless they travel to Britain. The 1967 Act was never extended to Northern Ireland and thousands of women needing an abortion have had to cross the Irish Sea to access a legal termination. As an added injustice, until recently they also had to pay for it. This was only overturned in June after the snap general election when the Tories courted the anti abortion Democratic Unionist Party for support to win the Queens Speech. The ensuing outcry forced Theresa May to ditch the requirement for women from Northern Ireland to pay for terminations.

Today the increasing vocal pro-choice side is highlighting the plight of women living in countries where abortion is banned, including on both sides of the Irish border. In the Republic of Ireland more than 40,000 people poured through the streets of Dublin on Saturday for the sixth annual March for Choice to demand a repeal of the eighth amendment to Ireland’s constitution. This amendment deems the rights of an embryo equal to those of the woman carrying it, at any stage of the pregnancy. This law against abortion doesn’t stop abortions happening, it simply exports them. Thousands of women are forced to travel to England to enable them to take control their own fertility. Over 200,000 women have travelled to Britain from Ireland to have an abortion since the 8th amendment was enacted in 1983.

After last year’s March for Choice, the Irish government handed the issue to a Citizens’ Assembly to examine and debate. The Assembly came out with a clear call for a change in the law, showing just how much attitudes are changing in Ireland. Last week the government finally announced it would hold a referendum on the question in 2018. This provides opportunity to overturn more than a century of anti-abortion legislation in the country, which up to 2013 included the 1861 Offences Against the Person act. This archaic law is still in place in Britain and it makes having or carrying out an abortion a criminal act punishable by life imprisonment. The 1967 Abortion Act did not replace this act, instead it created exceptions to allow legal abortions when certain conditions are fulfilled.

Even 50 years ago these conditions were restrictive, now when the majority of abortions are carried out by taking pills they are an oppressive anachronism. The website Women on Web reported that they receive requests from women living in Britain for abortion pills because access to abortion services is limited by the requirements of the law. The reasons women gave for contacting the website included the distance from a clinic providing abortion care, long waiting times, childcare responsibilities and the difficulty of getting time off work. But any woman in Britain who uses pills bought online potentially risks a prison sentence because of the strict controls over how abortion services are provided.

This is a situation that cannot hold. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists joined the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Midwives last week in calling for abortion in Britain to finally be removed from criminal law and be treated as simply a medical issue.

Repressive laws and attitudes to women’s rights to control their own bodies are being challenged across the globe. While online access to sites such as Women on Web saves lives, millions have no access even to this service. The World Health Organisation estimates that 25 million abortions globally are unsafe, that’s almost a half of all terminations.

In Britain the fight is on to defend the rights won by past generations but to also extend those rights to allow genuine reproductive choices. Whatever the utterances of anti abortion campaigners such as Rees Mogg, pro-choice activists are on the march and determined to win the long-running abortion wars.

First published on the Policy Press blog

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One Comment

  1. jcashbyblog says:

    Its complicated. How many families with a Down’s syndrome child would agree with aborting these babies when diagnosed in early pregnancy?

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