I introduced the Abortion Act 50 years ago this week. This is why it now needs extending

Northern Ireland’s lack of access to abortion and the fact that we won’t decriminalise it altogether in England and Wales puts us miles behind our European neighbours who allow all women to access abortions on request

David Steel
Thursday 26 October 2017 17:09 BST
The small minority who still oppose abortion are not forced to have one, and should not deny the majority from having reasonable access to the procedure
The small minority who still oppose abortion are not forced to have one, and should not deny the majority from having reasonable access to the procedure (Getty)

I recently encountered a professor of medicine who fifty years ago was a young medical student witnessing the passing of the Abortion Act into law. His lecturer held up a newly printed copy of the Act and said: “This is a historic day because your generation of doctors will never have to confront the consequences of botched abortions”. If only this had truly been the case.

He was referring to the fact that the public wards of most of our hospitals contained patients admitted for what was called “septic or incomplete abortion” – the results of either self-induced or back-street operator attempts. Between 30 and 50 women a year died as a result. Little wonder then that some years later the secretary of the British Medical Association in his retiring lecture described the Act as “the greatest advance in public health during my lifetime”.

I still get a mixture of fan and hate letters as though I were solely responsible for the legislation, when in fact I was just lucky to benefit from a quirk of British politics in which names are drawn at random and the MPs selected have the chance to put forward a members’ bill. After six previous attempts at reform all having failed because of lack of time, I was drawn third and able to introduce it again.

As a member of the tiny Liberal Party I was dependent on the unofficial whips (Peter Jackson MP for Labour and Sir George Sinclair MP for the Tories) as well as Alastair Service from the Abortion Law Reform Association to persuade members to give up their Fridays for a series of successful free votes.

As far back as 1938 an interdepartmental committee from the Home Office and the Department of Health had recommended an overhaul of the draconian law on abortion, but the war had intervened, and no subsequent government would touch the subject.

It is interesting to look back at the changes to the Sexual Offences Act whose 50th anniversary was also marked earlier this year. Then it decriminalised homosexuality only for those over 21, only between two people in private, and only in England and Wales. So much has been changed over the years to improve that Act, whereas (apart from reducing the viability assumption in law from 28 weeks to 24) the Abortion Act remains unchanged. It still requires the approval of two doctors, and has to be carried out in an approved place. But whereas in those days the only methods of abortion were surgical, that’s no longer the case.

Thousands march in Dublin to change abortion laws

The World Health Organisation reckons that global abortion rates are about 28 per 1,000 women, nearly half carried out by unqualified persons – 97 per cent in Africa are considered “unsafe”, as well as 95 per cent in Latin America and 40 per cent in Asia.

In 1967 European abortion laws were so behind that we had a problem in the early years of people coming to this country to obtain them. Now most of our European neighbours permit abortion on requests up to the 13th week of pregnancy and we are behind in our law. In theory women taking what’s known as the “abortion pill” at home are breaking the law, as presumably are those who prescribe it.

The law also does not extend to Northern Ireland (because at that time Stormont made the law) and so women in Northern Ireland have the expense and delay of travelling to across the Irish Sea to obtain treatment. The same of course is true in the Republic of Ireland where at least they have been promised a referendum on changing the law. It would be a scandal if in the North, the province was left 50 years behind because of the present Government’s dependence on the DUP.

Time after time we see cases of women in these territories enduring unbelievable trauma and even dying as a direct consequence of being denied abortions they should be entitled to.

There is always a problem with those who believe that human life begins at the moment of conception rather than the moment of birth. That remains the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. It was to respect their view that during the passage of the Act I introduced the conscience clause permitting doctors and nurses to avoid participating in abortions, but of course that small minority who cling passionately to that view are not obliged to have abortions, and should not deny the majority from having reasonable access to the procedure.

The time has surely come to update the 50-year-old reform by decriminalising abortion altogether. Will parliaments at Westminster and Holyrood listen?

Lord Steel is a former Liberal Party leader and a member of the House of Lords

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