Since the Abortion Act received Royal Assent on 27th October 1967, more than seven million women have benefited from access to safe legal abortions in Britain, and tens of millions have been able to enjoy sex knowing that an unwanted pregnancy need not result in motherhood.
The abortion law, which provides a defense to the crime of abortion established in the 1860s, has served women and society reasonably well. Despite being one of the most restrictive laws in the developed world on paper, it is one of the most liberal in the way it can be interpreted. Although the Act does not formally permit allow abortion on request, that is close to what it allows in practice. Doctors quite properly provide abortion when they believe that denying the woman’s request, and compelling her to carry a child to term will damage her mental health. With medical advances the risks of abortion have declined to the point where terminating a pregnancy in abortion is almost always safer than terminating it with a full term birth.
However, the Abortion Act has its problems – as you might expect from any piece of legislation that is almost half a century old. It was drawn up in the days when abortion involved different procedures. There was no simple and straight forward vacuum aspiration, and no pills that a woman could use early in pregnancy to cause an abortion that is like an early miscarriage. Anaesthetics made women ill enough to make abortion an over-night, in patient procedure. And there was an assumption that although abortion would be legal, it would be rare and shameful.
Today, abortion is understood to be a fact of life. We expect to plan our families using the contraception that is freely available cost-free on the NHS. But we know that contraception is not infallible, and nor are we. We draw comfort from knowing that abortion is available as a back up to our chosen method of birth control. The existing laws are not fit for purpose – and the way abortion is provided today begs a simple question: why have a law at all?
If abolished the prohibition on abortion, we would no longer need an Abortion Act to set out circumstances when it could be legal.
So why not decriminalize abortion altogether? How crazy it is that, in the twenty first century, abortion should be a crime subject to ‘penal servitude for life’.
The controversies attached to it in recent years show how anachronistic it has become. In the last two years we have seen abortion doctors harried for a number of reasons, none of which related to the safety of their practice and most of which related to the completion of paperwork unrelated to their clinical practice and unnecessary for any other operation.
The absurdity of the law is best illustrated by ridiculous provision of early medical abortion, where tablets must be taken physically in specially licensed clinics – even if the woman returns to expel her pregnancy at home. This leads to the farce where women accessing the safest form of abortion make an unnecessary clinic trip to take a tablet and then belt home as fast as possible to beat the onset of their miscarriage.
Abortion should be recognized for what it is - a safe and necessary healthcare procedure that, usually, is no more complicated than many of the minor procedures carried out in general practice. Doctors should be free to focus their attention on how to provide the most compassionate, care for their patients – not about whether they have complied with paperwork that serves no clinical purpose. Nurses, capable of and keen to provide abortions should be encouraged to develop their skills; not excluded by a law that limits provision for doctors.
Abortion is safe and it should be available as easily as contraception for women who need it. Why not regulate it just like any other form of medical treatment? Why not trust doctors and nurses and allow them to provide the best quality care? Why not have modern laws that meet modern needs? And when no special law is necessary, why have a law at all?
Ann Furedi is the chief executive of BPAS