Abortion Access in the UK: Examining Legal Rights and Restrictions

Abortion Access in the UK: Examining Legal Rights and Restrictions

According to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, about one in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime. This subject affects millions of women, yet one-quarter of the world’s population lives under laws that completely prohibit abortion or only permit it to save a woman’s life. Most of these countries are in the Global South, Central, and Eastern Asia. Join us while we delve into the abortion access debate.

However, women have abortions regardless of whether it is illegal. Proportionally, more women have abortions in countries with restrictive legislative contexts than in those where abortion is legal. The law does not stop women from having abortions, but it does affect the safety of the procedure. According to the World Health Organisation, approximately 5 million women are hospitalised, and 47,000 women die from abortion each year, almost exclusively in countries where abortion is illegal. Laws on abortion have a direct correlation with maternal morbidity and mortality rates.

At the turn of the 1970s, abortion started to be discussed publicly. Since then, many subjects such as same-sex marriage, pornography, and anti-discrimination laws have been the subject of discussion; however, almost none have had the longevity of the subject of abortion.

Pro-Choice vs. Anti-Abortion: The Abortion Access Debate

Society was divided into two camps: pro-choice (those who support a woman’s right to choose regarding pregnancy) versus anti-abortion (those who believe that pregnancy should not be terminated under any circumstances). In the beginning, anti-abortion activists were mostly concerned with women’s sexuality and their desire not to become mothers.

However, they soon realised that being directly against women’s rights would not help their cause. Facing the rising popularity of feminism, anti-abortion activists chose to focus on the rights of the “unborn” rather than attacking women directly.

In 1996, the ProLife Alliance Party (PLA) was formed in Britain. This anti-abortion political party was active from 1996 to 2004. The electoral support garnered by the ProLife Alliance Party was insignificant. Broadcasters refused to air the party’s election broadcasts in 1997 and 2001 because they contained images of aborted foetuses, leading the party to sue the BBC.

In 2014, reports showing that doctors had been willing to accept sex selection as a reason for an abortion led the new Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, to issue government guidance clarifying that sex-selective abortion was illegal.

In the UK, despite regular attempts to restrict and police abortion law, the main story has been one of success for the pro-choice movement, and the 1967 Act remains robust. Female parliamentarians have traditionally been the most vocal defenders of the Abortion Act compared to male parliamentarians. However, unlike US activists, there isn’t a sense of pessimism and urgency regarding the need to defend the Abortion Act. According to past interviews, although there are parliamentary attempts to reduce the time limit available for abortion, activists in the UK do not express concern that this will happen.

Northern Ireland’s Struggle for Abortion Rights

However, women in Northern Ireland have not always been that fortunate when it comes to abortion. Until October 2019, it was partly illegal to have an abortion in Northern Ireland. It was only allowed if a woman’s life was at risk or if there was a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.

The law implemented in 1861 made it a criminal offence to procure a miscarriage. In 1945, an exception was added to say that abortion could be permitted only to preserve the mother’s life. However, rape, incest, or diagnoses of fatal abnormalities—where doctors believe the baby will die before, during, or shortly after birth—were not valid reasons for legal abortion.

Girl holding a legal abortion billboard

The case of Sara Ewart challenged the law. In 2013, she was told she could not have a legal abortion even though doctors said her foetus would not survive outside the womb. She had to travel to England for a termination and spoke of the trauma that this prolonged experience caused her. She took her case to court, and the High Court ruled it a breach of human rights. This was a turning point for women in Northern Ireland. MPs in London voted for legislation on Northern Ireland abortion laws to be changed, leading to the decriminalisation of abortion laws in Northern Ireland.

The Impact of Abortion Laws on Women’s Health

According to the NHS, most abortions in England, Wales, and Scotland are carried out before 24 weeks of pregnancy. They can be carried out after 24 weeks but in minimal circumstances. The decision of abortion is left to the pregnant woman, and if she does not wish to tell anyone about it, her details are kept confidential.

There are two types of abortion: medical and surgical. According to national statistics, in 2021, 87% of abortions were medically induced, which involves taking two medicines in the comfort of your own home. Medical abortions have increased by 40% since 2011. Medical abortions shorten the waiting period that would take longer with surgical abortions, which might be the reason for the increased demand for medical abortions.

American activist Margaret Sanger once said, “No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.” This battle for the freedom of women is won in the UK. May it be an example for the rest of the world.

The issue of abortion access is a complex and multifaceted one that continues to be a subject of intense debate globally. It is a topic that intersects with various aspects of society, including health, law, ethics, and human rights. The debate between pro-choice and anti-abortion camps reflects the diverse perspectives and deeply held beliefs of individuals and societies.

The discussion on abortion access is not merely an academic or theoretical one. It has real, tangible impacts on the lives of millions of women worldwide. The legal status of abortion in a country can significantly influence the safety and health outcomes for women. In countries where abortion is illegal or severely restricted, women often resort to unsafe methods, leading to serious health complications and even death.

The debate on abortion access also highlights the broader issue of women’s rights and autonomy over their bodies. The ability to make decisions about one’s reproductive health is a fundamental aspect of personal freedom and dignity.

As we move forward, it is crucial to continue the dialogue on abortion access, ensuring it is informed, respectful, and inclusive of all perspectives. However, it is equally important to remember that at the heart of this debate are women’s lives and their right to health, safety, and autonomy.

Therefore, the call to action is clear: We must strive for a world where every woman has safe and legal access to abortion services, where she can make decisions about her body and her life without fear or stigma. This is not a matter of health policy but of social justice and human rights. Let us all contribute to this goal in whatever way we can, through advocacy, education, or simply by fostering understanding and empathy in our everyday conversations.