On Tuesday 23 October, Labour MP Diana Johnson introduced a ten-minute rule bill in the House of Commons to decriminalise abortion in the UK. 208 MPs voted in favour, and 123 against.
The Offences Against the Persons Act 1861 makes abortion illegal in the UK, and this Act was only partly superseded by the Abortion Act 1967. This means that the ″compromises″ built into the ′67 Act, such as the two-doctor rule and giving a reason for termination, must be followed for an abortion not to be a criminal offence. In theory anyone breaching the law could face life in prison. It also means that abortion is a criminal offence in Northern Ireland, which is not covered by the ′67 Act.
Speaking to LabourList, Diana Johnson said ″I was talking to a consultant in Hull who worked in women’s health about abortion. I thought that the 1967 Act had been in place for a long while and whenever we’d raised it in parliament it had always been about restricting and time limits. I asked: ‘What would be a progressive step in terms of abortion law reform? Would getting rid of the requirement for two doctors be a sensible step forward?’ She said: ‘What you need to do is decriminalise abortion, get rid of the stigma, take the criminal courts out of the whole issue — what is essentially a healthcare matter between a woman and her doctor. Have proper regulation but get rid of the criminal element.’″
The bill forms part of a mounting pressure on the government to act over abortion rights in Northern Ireland. After the Repeal the Eighth Amendment referendum in the Republic of Ireland, and a Supreme Court case this summer found that Northern Ireland′s law was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, the government′s position that abortion is a devolved issue has been under pressure. Last year the government confirmed women from Northern Ireland may have free abortions in England and Wales.
The bill also contains provision for the creation of a new offence to prosecute anyone who causes a women to miscarry — a ″non-consensual abortion″ — protecting women who suffer domestic violence during pregnancy. Although it is unlikely that this bill will get much further, it will strengthen the case to repeal a law that criminalises women, and prevents women in one part of the UK from accessing abortion.