Written by Lauren Geall
As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and women’s issues. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.
Despite what many believe, abortion is still criminalised in the UK – except in specific circumstances.
If you’ve been on social media at all this morning, you’ll no doubt have seen a video of the Conservative MP Danny Kruger making the rounds.
In the video – which was taken during a parliamentary debate about the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade – the MP said he recognised the “degree of distress and concern” felt by many MPs in response to the news, but went on to share a different opinion.
“The facts are that I would probably disagree with most members who’ve spoken so far about this question,” Kruger began. “They think that women have an absolute right of bodily autonomy in this matter, whereas I think in the case of abortion, that right is qualified by the fact that another body is involved.”
After receiving verbal backlash from other members of the Commons, Kruger continued: “I offer to members who are trying to talk me down, that this is a proper topic for political debate. And my point to the frontbench is, I don’t understand why we are lecturing the United States on a judgement to return the power of decision over this political question to the state – to democratic decision-makers – rather than leaving it in the hands of the courts.”
There are, of course, a lot of things wrong with Kruger’s words – particularly in regards to his argument that women shouldn’t have “an absolute right” to bodily autonomy when it comes to pregnancy.
But despite the (reassuring) outrage, Kruger’s comments have attracted online, the boldness with which they were made is particularly concerning – especially in light of where the UK law currently stands on abortion.
The UK’s laws are of course nowhere near as restrictive as those in the US, but they still raise cause for concern. Despite what many people believe, abortion is still illegal here under certain circumstances. The only reason why abortion is allowed in England, Wales and Scotland is thanks to the 1967 Abortion Act, which says abortion is legal under certain circumstances before 24 weeks (or after when there is a risk of grave personal injury or death). This Act rendered lawful activities which would previously have been considered a crime under the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act.
In order to get an abortion under this framework, the procedure must be signed off by two doctors “acting in good faith” – with each needing to agree that at least one of four grounds is met. These include when a pregnancy puts the physical or mental health of the pregnant person at risk, or when the baby is likely to be born with severe physical or mental abnormalities.
In Northern Ireland, the law works differently: before 12 weeks’ gestation, there are no restrictions on abortion, with only one medical professional required to certify that the pregnancy has not exceeded its twelfth week. After this point, abortions are legal in specified circumstances, including when severe fetal impairment is detected.
While the grounds allowing abortion in England, Scotland and Wales cover a very broad range of circumstances, they do not give women the unconditional right to an abortion, and many barriers – such as stigma, protests outside clinics and a lack of providers – still exist. And it’s for this reason why experts have been calling for the decriminalisation of abortion for many years.
The decriminalisation of abortion, which is supported by UK health organisations including the BMA and Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, would do more than just remove a symbolic barrier – it could change attitudes and improve access to treatment.
According to Doctors for Choice UK, decriminalising abortion would help to improve quality of care by avoiding the unnecessary delays caused by needing the signature of two doctors, and would also help to reduce the stigma around the treatment; as long as abortion remains illegal, the law is sending a message of strong social disapproval.
There’s also the problem of access – women who seek out abortion pills and carry out the procedure at home are currently risking imprisonment – but it’s not always possible for women to get to a clinic.
“While it is true to say that abortion care is relatively accessible in Great Britain, for some women there remain insurmountable barriers to accessing legal treatment within a clinic,” Katharine O’Brien, Associate Director of Communications and Campaigns at BPAS (the British Pregnancy Advisory Service), previously told Stylist.
“In previous years data released by one online abortion pills provider, Women on Web, shows that on average two women a day from England, Wales, and Scotland contact this one organisation to request abortion pills because they cannot get to a clinic for treatment.
“These women include those in coercive and violent relationships, who cannot risk attending a clinic in case their partner finds out they are pregnant, women who are caring for children with serious medical conditions, and those with severe morning sickness who are quite literally confined to their home.”
She continued: “Under our current criminal law, any of these women who use online abortion pills to end a pregnancy risk up to life imprisonment.”
There’s no denying that the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade has put many women across America in a horrific situation – and the UK’s situation is not comparable in the slightest – but comments like Danny Kruger’s should serve as a powerful reminder that our rights here in the UK are not automatic and unshakeable.
Abortion is an essential form of healthcare, not a topic for “political debate” – and we must continue to speak up against those who suggest otherwise.
BPAS, the British Pregnancy Advice Service, provides abortion support and advice online, or call MSI Reproductive Choices (formerly Marie Stopes) on 0345 300 8090, 365 days a year, 7am to 8pm.
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