It was without a doubt that the overturning of Roe v Wade by the US supreme court would have adverse consequences. The landmark US abortion case, which allowed women* the constitutional right to abortion, had been abandoned, justifiably sparking global outrage. The ruling has implications for everyone, but for minorities, the effects are the most alarming, and the worst is yet to come. Economic inequities will soon become apparent where economically vulnerable women may not have the means to travel out of state and, ironically, will be left to raise a child, at a much greater expense.
When the news broke, I found many of the articles and social media posts too harrowing to read. I am ordinarily quite numb to media sensationalism, but this story was far from a sensationalised one, and the reports were just agonizing. I couldn’t imagine living in a country where I am not seen as an autonomous human being, capable of making choices over my own body. A country where I may be prosecuted for exercising rights over my own body.
Except, this ‘distant’ despair is much closer than we fear. We are far too complacent about the state of the archaic abortion laws in the United Kingdom and we are ignorant of the ways in which they put women’s health and lives at risk.
Last Friday, a woman was tried in Oxford Crown Court for the charge of administering poison with intent to procure a miscarriage. She is one of two women who are currently being prosecuted in the UK for the termination of their pregnancies and as a result face life imprisonment.
Abortion in the UK is, remarkably, still a criminal offence – whilst the 1967 Abortion Act legalised abortion in specific circumstances, outside of these circumstances, termination of a pregnancy is outlawed. A Sunday Times investigation has revealed that over the past seven years, 52 women have been reported to the police for a potential breach of our abortion laws, and this number is reportedly on the rise.
For those thinking – ‘just go through the appropriate channels and there won’t be a risk of prosecution’ – there are a multitude of reasons why women may not have access to abortion as specified by the 1967 Abortion Act. Whether it be someone unable to escape from an abusive partner and therefore needs the abortion care at home, or a migrant woman who is not eligible for NHS-funded treatment, our laws expose vulnerable women to danger. Prosecutions for pregnancy terminations can set in place detrimental precedents – Clare Murphy, the chief executive of BPAS, has stressed that “these prosecutions may well deter women experiencing miscarriages and incomplete abortions from seeking treatment when needed.” The severity of the situation in the UK has even provoked senior doctors to write to the country’s chief prosecutor in an attempt to stop him from taking women to court for ending their pregnancies.
What I once thought was a far-flung nightmare is much closer to reality than we think. The Times investigation further revealed that there are multiple instances where women have come under police suspicion after natural miscarriages or stillbirths, as they had considered termination at one point. The digital age means that even a simple google search for abortion providers can provide damning evidence which can land a woman with a life sentence. In the process of researching this article, I may have incriminated myself, should I ever go through the grief of a miscarriage past 24 weeks.
The reality is, that these ‘criminal’ investigations are horrifying and humiliating. Jonathon Lord, medical director of a company which provides abortion support, tells how following a natural stillbirth, a 15-year-old girl had her phone confiscated. This left her without the support of family and friends and spending half a year waiting to know whether she would face criminal charges. Another woman was held for 36 hours in police custody after being discharged from hospital following emergency surgery the night before.
Medical bodies, charities and abortion providers alike are in support of the decriminalisation of abortion. It should be stressed that this by no means suggests that decriminalisation should come with deregulation – abortions are medical practices and should be regulated the same way that all medical practices are. What is certain is that no one benefits from targeting women and painting them as criminals for choices they make over their own bodies.
Whether you label yourself as pro-choice or anti-choice, one thing is clear – these archaic laws are not only dangerous but life-threatening. Criminalising reproductive rights can lead to women delaying seeking medical help for fear of prosecution. Likewise, abortion does not go away with criminalisation; safe abortion does. We need to see abortion decriminalised and regulated in a safe way to protect the lives and well-being of women in this country.
*We recognise that women are not the only people affected by abortion – the effects of abortion rights impact everyone, including trans men and intersex, nonbinary or gender expansive people
Image: CC2:0 via Humanists International