MPs propose decriminalising abortion up to 24 weeks

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A cross-party group of MPs is proposing to make abortion access a human right in England and Wales, putting forward legislation that would decriminalise abortion up to 24 weeks and introduce protections against access being stripped back.

Proposals to modernise abortion law have been made in the form of amendments to the government’s criminal justice bill, which is due to be debated after parliament returns from its Easter recess later this month. The Commons speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, will choose which ones are voted on. MPs are expected to be given a free vote.

This latest proposal, tabled by MPs last week, seeks to protect the women who have abortions and the medical staff who provide them from prosecution. It would modernise the law by decriminalising abortion up to 24 weeks and introduce a “lock” to ensure future legislation and guidance protects the right to abortion.

This lock seeks to ensure that abortion access can be restricted only if that is the explicit will of parliament.

The amendment is backed by Stella Creasy, the Labour MP and abortion rights campaigner, and Dan Poulter, a former Tory health minister and doctor specialising in women’s health. Other MPs who have signed it include Labour’s Sarah Owen and Charlotte Nichols and the Green party’s Caroline Lucas.

“Enshrining abortion as a human right will prevent further attacks on access as well as those who assist women to ensure abortion can be safe, legal and local,” Creasy said.

“The public is very clear – the 95% of women who have early abortions should not have to justify their choice, and the small number of women who tragically have abortions towards the end of pregnancy need our support, not to be sent to prison. It is time that our law reflected this, and came into line with the rest of western Europe.”

The MPs’ proposal is partly modelled on legislation introduced in Northern Ireland in 2019, where abortion law is now less restrictive than in England and Wales. Abortions in Northern Ireland are decriminalised. The Northern Ireland secretary, currently Chris Heaton-Harris, bears responsibility under the legislation for preventing a rollback in abortion access.

Creasy said: “The lesson from Northern Ireland is to ensure someone in government has direct responsibility to prevent attacks behind the scenes on abortion service provision by those who oppose it – preventing those who oppose abortion from using seemingly progressive changes in law as an excuse to issue guidance or regulations by the back door which roll back advances such as telemedicine or time limits.”

This latest proposal gives MPs another way to modernise abortion laws in England and Wales. An existing proposal to fully decriminalise abortion made by Diana Johnson, the Labour chair of the home affairs committee, has gathered traction among MPs. Johnson’s proposal would abolish the criminal offence associated with a woman ending her own pregnancy, mirroring the law in Northern Ireland.

The Guardian reported last month that some senior Labour figures were concerned that Johnson’s proposal goes too far because of the provision of telemedicine in England and Wales, which allows women to terminate in the early stages by taking tablets at home without seeing a doctor. This is not an option in Northern Ireland.

Johnson’s proposal would mean that a woman who misleads an abortion provider in order to obtain pills to terminate a pregnancy at home after 24 weeks would not be committing an offence.

At present, abortion law in England and Wales relies on the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which outlawed terminations, and is still used to prosecute women today.

The Abortion Act 1967 decriminalised abortion in some circumstances, but is framed in a way that means abortion is not a right. Instead, it exempts a woman from prosecution when two doctors agree the pregnancy would be a risk to her physical or mental health. The legislation originally allowed terminations up to 28 weeks, but this was lowered to 24 weeks in a 1991 amendment.


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