Roe v Wade: How to support abortion rights in the UK

More than 210,000 abortions took place in England and Wales in 2020

Saman Javed,Laura Hampson
Friday 24 June 2022 11:24 BST
<p>Abortion is legal in the UK under the 1967 Abortion Act</p>

Abortion is legal in the UK under the 1967 Abortion Act

The US Supreme Court has struck down the landmark 1973 Roe v Wade ruling, which means millions of women in the US will lose the legal right to abortion.

This means that individual states are now able to ban the procedure, and half of US states are expected to introduce bans or restrictions.

Thirteen US States have already passed “trigger laws” to automatically ban abortions following the ruling.

Research from Planned Parenthood estimates that rights to an abortion will be cut off for approximately 36 million women.

Prior to the ruling, restrictions on abortion had previously been imposed in Texas. As of September 2021, Senate Bill 8 bans abortions in the state after approximately six weeks of pregnancy.

In England, Scotland and Wales, women are legally able to have an abortion up to 23 weeks and six days of pregnancy under the 1967 Abortion Act. They are sometimes carried out after 24 weeks in limited circumstances, for example if the mother’s life is at risk or if the child would be born with a severe disability.

By law, services must ask women why they want an abortion, and two doctors must verify that the requirements of the Abortion Act are met.

Abortion may be permitted on one of four grounds – if there is a risk to the life of the pregnant woman, or if abortion will prevent grave permanent injury to a woman’s physical or mental health.

Abortion can also take place if there is risk to the physical and mental health of the woman or any existing children of her family, or there is a substantial risk that if the child was born, they would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.

The 1967 Act did not extend to Northern Ireland and abortion was not decriminalised in the region until 2019. Despite this, abortion services here are still limited.

In March, British MP Brandon Lewis, secretary of state for Northern Ireland, announced he was setting up a small team of people to work with Northern Ireland’s Department of Health on creating high-quality abortion care. Writing in a ministerial statement, Lewis said it was “unacceptable” that services had not already been established.

Although women have a legal right to abortion in the UK and the grounds for abortion are broad, rights groups say it is still a “bureaucratic, patriarchal procedure” which requires the approval of two doctors.

Additionally, abortion still remains a criminal offence under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 if a woman ends her own pregnancy without the approval of two doctors.

Barriers to accessibility of abortion services also remain. Campaigners have warned that waiting times for treatment across the UK are still too long, and some women report having to travel hours outside of where they live to receive treatment.

In its latest guidance on abortions, the World Health Organization states that all “medically unnecessary policy barriers to safe abortion” should be removed.

This includes the risk of criminalisation and the requirement that approval must be given by other people or institutions.

It also recommends removing limits on when during pregnancy an abortion can take place. “Such barriers can lead to critical delays in accessing treatment and put women and girls at greater risk,” it said.

Here are some steps you can take to support groups working to protect and improve abortion rights in the UK.

Know your rights

MSI Reproductive Choices UK, a leading abortion provider, says people should take time to educate themselves on their rights surrounding abortions.

While many know that abortion is a legal right in the UK, they may not be aware of the specific grounds, or that the approval of two doctors is a legal requirement.

“People know that abortions are available and acceptable, but they may not know how it happens,” Sarah Shaw, head of advocacy says. “If people know their rights, it’s harder to take them away.”

Additionally, the fact that abortion still sits within criminal law means that the public must “be constantly vigilant” when it comes to protecting their rights, experts at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) said.

“The 1967 Abortion Act provides legal protection from criminalisation if a woman meets the terms of the Act, but if, for example, a woman buys abortion medication online to end a pregnancy at 6 weeks gestation because they cannot access NHS-funded services, they could face prosecution,” a spokesperson for the BPAS said.

“At any given time, parliament could attempt to restrict women’s access. Over recent years, a number of anti-choice MPs have sought to do just that, and we must be constantly vigilant.”

Sign the petitions and make some noise

Mara Clarke, the founder of Abortion Support Network, says “the most important thing people in the UK can do to support abortion rights within the UK is to be loudly, unashamedly pro-choice”.

“The anti-abortion population is less than 10 per cent of the UK’s population. We are the pro-choice majority, and we should speak often about not only abortion but about all reproductive health issues.

“Periods, fertility, miscarriage, pregnancy, abortion, menopause – these are normal everyday issues for all of us.

According to the latest figures, 210,860 abortions were reported in England and Wales in 2020.

The BPAS has launched a petition calling on foreign secretary Liz Truss to ask the UK government to publicly condemn the US Supreme Court draft opinion. BPAS said to overturn the 1973 ruling “[is] clearly a breach of human rights and an assault on women, their families and their lives”.

One recent survey of 5,098 UK adults, commissioned by MSI, found that nine in 10 people believe women should be able to access abortion services.

MSI is encouraging the public to talk openly about abortion in a bid to normalise it as a reproductive right, and remove any stigma attached to it.

It has invited women to share their experiences and is reminding people that is “a very safe, very common medical procedure”.

The BPAS and MSI are also asking the government to introduce national buffer zone legislation outside all abortion clinics.

This would protect people visiting abortion clinics from harassment from pro-life groups.

“We hear heartbreaking stories from patients who are genuinely traumatised by the experience of walking through shouting, shaming crowds, in order to access a perfectly legal medical service,” MSI said.

More access is needed

Better access to abortion services within NHS hospitals for women with complex medical needs is imperative, the BPAS has said.

Women with epilepsy, diabetes, heart conditions or cancer, cannot be treated in a standalone community clinic as they review swift access to backup care and specific clinical expertise in the event of an emergency.

“Every week, women in the UK are unable to access abortion care because we cannot find appointments within NHS hospitals. These are women for whom the continuation of the pregnancy poses a significant threat to their health,” BPAS said.

Clarke says abortion should be part of the cycle of reproductive healthcare and provided more consistently across the UK.

“We’ve heard from women who live in parts of England without a second trimester abortion provider who are struggling to travel large distances to clinics or to find childcare while they travel,” Clarke said.

“While more than 90 per cent of abortions take place in the first 12 weeks, we need to protect the 24 week time limit.

“The UK has the highest on request abortion time limit in Europe, and while very few abortions are carried out after 20 weeks, or even after 12, the people who need later abortions really, really need them. We can’t lose that.”

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