The Fight for Abortion Rights

21 Jun 2023

The country was outraged recently at the draconian decision to imprison a woman for two years for the unlawful termination of her pregnancy. This decision, which will see a mother of three jailed under a Victorian-era law, highlights an uncomfortable fact that in the UK civil rights protections are far more vulnerable than we might imagine.

This decision came nearly a full year after the US Republicans completed their decades long campaign to overturn the US Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling, Roe vs Wade. This landmark ruling granted the federal right to women’s reproductive healthcare, including abortion. Women's healthcare in the US was plunged into chaos, as 13 Republican dominated states activated ‘trigger laws’ which came into effect the moment Roe vs Wade was overturned. Today, US abortion law is a complex minefield for women trying to exercise their right to choose, with many forced to clandestinely travel out of state, often for life saving healthcare. Perhaps most heartbreaking was the story of a 10-year-old girl, forced to travel out of state to abort a pregnancy arising from rape.

In comparison to the US, the situation in the UK on abortion rights has appeared far more progressive. Scratch beneath the surface however, and we find that the law protecting the right to abortion in the UK is shaky at best. This week's decision to imprison a mother of three for a late abortion highlights the pressing need to strengthen abortion rights and banish Victorian-era anti-choice legislation once and for all. Any apathy or complacency from progressives about the legal footing of issues of reproductive rights in the UK must come to an end. We urgently need fresh legislation to fully decriminalise abortion; and we need only look to the US to see what awaits us if we do not.

We must also ask why this woman was even charged with a crime in the first place! The code for Crown Prosecutors sets out the general principles that should be followed when deciding whether to prosecute a criminal offence. One of the key questions that must be answered by a prosecutor before charging someone is “Is it in the public interest for the CPS to bring the case to court?”. Clearly, it is not in the public interest for the CPS to have even brought charges in the first place. The law cited was archaic (The 1861 Offences against the Person Act) and there is no legitimate “public interest” that should empower prosecutors to pry into any woman’s right to access reproductive healthcare.

Finally, progressives and feminists should consider that the jury in this case chose to convict this woman, rather than acquit her. We must learn from this is that the public case for abortion rights needs to be restated. We should not assume that the issue of abortion rights is settled, and that the situation cannot get worse. The UK does have a small but significant zealous anti-abortion lobby. On this, we can take inspiration from the incredible campaign run by Irish feminists to “repeal the 8th amendment” who obtained a huge mandate for the right to abortion in a 2018 referendum, with over 66% of voters supporting the campaign. This achievement was even more historic considering that as late as 2002, Irish voters rejected by referendum the right to an abortion, even in cases of a threat to the life of a woman.

The fight for reproductive healthcare is far from over. But by discarding complacency and taking inspiration from feminists all over the world, past and present, we can ensure no woman is ever jailed for trying to access healthcare again.

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