Are Our Abortion Rights Under Threat in the UK?

Abigail Cadman Kerr

The historic Roe v Wade judgment has been overturned in the US and the decision has been met with a wave of criticism throughout the world. It has also fuelled pro-life fires. Abigail Cadman Kerr examines the significance of this landmark ruling and the threats to abortion rights in the UK.

Roe v Wade was passed in 1973 by 7 of the 9 US Supreme Court judges, finding that the Constitution of the United States conferred the right to have an abortion. However, on 24th June 2022, they reversed this monumental decision; the power to decide whether abortions should be legal now lies with the states. Immediately, 13 states outlawed abortion under any circumstance, with another 13 expected to follow. Abortion has been effectively outlawed in over half of US states. While Boris Johnson called this a ‘big step backwards’, the right to an abortion in the UK is under threat as well.

Women are still stripped of the right to an abortion on request

Abortion was legalised in England, Scotland, and Wales in 1967. However, it still sits within criminal law, meaning abortion is not a legal right. This is due to the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 , a piece of Victorian-era legislation which outlawed abortion. While terminations have since been legalised under the Abortion Act 1977, the law states that a woman must have the approval of two doctors before having an abortion. Either doctor could conscientiously object. This is unlike any other medical procedure that is unrelated to fertility treatments. Women are, therefore, still stripped of the right to an abortion on request.

In Northern Ireland, abortion was legalised in October 2019, but services remain scarce. Delays in improving these services are a result of frequent disagreements between political parties, with the DUP consistently attempting to block efforts to increase abortion services. This means that many women still have to fly to England to access abortions. But, this isn’t just a problem in Northern Ireland. Lucy Grieve, co-founder and director of Back off Scotland, a group campaigning for buffer zones, found that Scottish women were having to travel as far as Bournemouth in England for second-trimester abortions. Though these practical barriers do not seem as significant as the limitations enforced by the overturning of Roe v Wade in America, it is just one of the many ways access to abortion is restricted in the UK.

The right to an abortion in the UK is more fragile than one might think

The UK government’s record on abortion demonstrates its lack of commitment to these issues. Current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has abstained on almost all votes regarding abortion since 2007, including on an Act to introduce buffer zones around abortion clinics and an Act to make at-home abortions permanent in England. Likewise, the government, against the advice of medical professionals at the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, announced its intention to scrap at-home abortions earlier this year. However, this move was opposed MPs, and an amendment to make at-home abortions permanent was passed with a majority of 27. Despite this, there was a fierce debate, with members divided and 174 Conservative MPs opposing the move. Conservative MP Danny Kruger even argued that women should not have “an absolute right” to bodily autonomy when pregnant.

More concerningly, the UK government has made amendments to a multinational statement committing to the fundamental rights of women and girls, removing references to the ‘sexual and reproductive health and rights’ of women and girls and to ‘bodily autonomy’. Before these amendments were made last month, 22 countries had signed the original text. These changes have caused outrage, with the UN expressing its dismay. Now, only 6 countries have signed the statement, including Malta, where abortion is illegal, despite not having been one of the original signatories. In light of Roe v Wade, decisions such as this demonstrate that the right to an abortion in the UK is more fragile than one might think.

Anti-abortion demonstrations are increasing in the UK, often targeting abortion clinics. This has led to calls for the government to introduce buffer zones to protect women entering these clinics, “[shielding] patients from harassment and intimidation”.

In 2019, over 100,000 women went to clinics targeted by campaigners, with this number increasing as these protests expand. While the first buffer zone was created by Ealing Council outside of a West London clinic in 2018, only 2 more have been created since. The government has failed to act. Women should not have to face harassment and abuse when acting on their legal right to terminate a pregnancy.

“[t]he most important thing people in the UK can do to support abortion rights is to be loudly, unashamedly pro-choice”

Anti-choice groups in the US have launched international campaigns to help other campaigners around the world, particularly in Europe. For example, anti-abortion group Alliance Defencing Freedom spent nearly £500,000 on lobbying in the UK from 2017 to 2019, working on opposing buffer zones and supporting the right for medical staff to conscientiously object to providing legal abortion services. In the wake of Roe v Wade having been overturned, the influence of American anti-choice groups could grow further. Katherine O’Brien, from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service outlines her concerns, arguing “[a]nti-abortion groups in the UK work closely with their counterparts in the US, receiving funding and training. We are concerned that a perceived ‘victory’ for anti-choice groups in America will lead to an escalation in clinic protests here”.

While this news seems very depressing, we are not helpless. The UK is a pro-choice majority, with 85% of people believe women should have the right to an abortion. As a majority, we need to make sure our voices are heard. We can do this by signing petitions encouraging the introduction of buffer zones and making abortion a medical issue rather than a criminal offence. Also, we can join pro-choice organisations such as Abortion Rights UK, whose membership fee start at £5 for students. Mara Clarke, founder of Abortion Support, believes “[t]he most important thing people in the UK can do to support abortion rights is to be loudly, unashamedly pro-choice”. That is exactly what we must do in order to maintain abortion rights in the UK.

Abigail Cadman Kerr

Featured image courtesy of Gayatri Malhotra via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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