September 26, 2023

  1. Nazir Afzal, former chief prosecutor, chancellor of College of Manchester

Nice Britain’s archaic abortion legal guidelines are lagging behind public opinion and urgently want to alter, argues Nazir Afzal

One of many many issues I’ve learnt from working in felony justice for greater than 30 years is that jail ought to be the final resort for ladies. I noticed how jail merely didn’t work for a lot of susceptible girls, and that households have been usually ruined and youngsters put into care. In far too many instances, the legislation was a blunt instrument that served no function.

As a prosecutor, you don’t get to make the legal guidelines, however you see how poor ones fail folks and wider society.

The current conviction of a girl for illegally procuring a late abortion by mendacity to the British Being pregnant Advisory Service (BPAS) about what number of weeks into her being pregnant she was, is one other appalling instance.

The girl, aged 44, informed BPAS in 2020 she was round seven weeks pregnant when she was in truth properly into her third trimester.1 She was conscious of that reality, as evidenced by her Google searches on the right way to induce a miscarriage or get an abortion previous six months’ gestation. She consumed the medicine mifepristone and misoprostol supplied by the NHS “tablets by submit” scheme, and later informed medical workers that she was unaware she was pregnant. She subsequently informed police that she had legally obtained these medicine not realizing how superior her being pregnant was.

For as soon as, opposing sides of the controversy might agree on one factor: this was a case of maximum tragedy. A mom of three—who had a toddler with disabilities—will spend not less than a yr away from her kids. She is haunted by flashbacks of the face of her useless child, after taking the tablets when the fetus was from seven to eight months’ gestation, in line with the judgment.1

Many individuals can be shocked to be taught that in England, Wales, and Scotland, abortion is a felony offence. It has been since not less than 1861 when the Offences in opposition to the Particular person Act was launched.2 Whereas the Abortion Act 19673 launched some circumstances when an exception could possibly be made, abortion nonetheless carries a most sentence of life imprisonment. Prosecutions have been uncommon, however figures obtained by freedom of knowledge requests by the Observer revealed there have been 67 experiences to police of procuring unlawful abortions within the decade to 2022.4

The Abortion Act initially allowed terminations as much as 28 weeks, however this was lowered to 24 weeks in 1991. Circumstances that permit an abortion after 24 weeks are very restricted: for instance, if the mom’s life is in danger. Terminations have to be carried out at a hospital or licensed clinic.

In the course of the covid-19 pandemic, at-home abortion tablets have been made accessible by submit for folks looking for an abortion within the first 10 weeks of being pregnant. Earlier than the pandemic, girls had been required to attend a clinic. This measure was made everlasting by parliament in August 2022.

MP Laura Trott hailed this as a “matter for human dignity, for ladies’s dignity” and it was additionally supported by BPAS.5 However abortion continues to be ruled by a Victorian felony legislation in England, Scotland, and Wales, placing us out of step with many different nations.

Not like the remainder of the UK, Northern Eire went by a large transformation in 2019 when abortion was decriminalised. Earlier than 2019, girls in Northern Eire might solely legally entry an abortion if their being pregnant would trigger a long run and critical danger to the mom’s bodily or psychological well being. The change meant girls might request an abortion as much as 12 weeks with out proving a danger to their well being, and that as much as 24 weeks the legislation is basically the identical as the remainder of the UK.

In Northern Eire that is now framed with no consideration to an abortion and, whereas vital obstacles stay to accessing companies there, it has created a authorized framework that’s completely different to the remainder of the UK, the place girls’s reproductive rights are nonetheless firmly managed by felony legislation.

Greater than 95% of ladies in Europe dwell in nations that permit abortion on request or on broad social grounds6—and opinion tends to mirror this. A 2021 IPSOS survey on abortion rights confirmed that 65% of individuals within the UK believed abortion ought to be permitted every time a girl decides she desires one.7

However abortion rights nonetheless lag a way behind public opinion. We nonetheless rely upon legal guidelines fashioned earlier than girls had the best to vote, and which put girls’s our bodies underneath state management.

As tragic because the case referenced above is, it ought to function a get up name for abortion to be turned from a felony justice subject right into a public well being one. This may nonetheless permit it to be regulated in the identical means that each one well being remedies are.

Treating abortion as a criminal offense influences the choices girls make, once they would in any other case be ruled by well being issues.

There may be an urge for food for change, however it comes at a time when girls’s rights are underneath assault in lots of elements of the world. Many imagine that one thing equal to the overturning of Roe v Wade couldn’t occur within the UK. However with rising numbers of ladies being investigated underneath draconian legal guidelines, we can’t be complacent.


  • Competing pursuits: none declared.

  • Provenance: commissioned, not externally peer reviewed.