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Little public support for criminalising abortion without doctor permission

Poll shows that two thirds of respondents don’t think a woman should face prison, says leading charity

Caroline White

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

There is little public support for criminalising abortion when carried out without the permission of two doctors, as current law in England, Wales, and Scotland requires, show the results of a nationally representative poll of more than 2,000 adults, carried out on behalf of the charity, bpas.

Amid growing numbers of women turning to the internet to buy abortion pills, two thirds of respondents (65%: 70% of women and 61% of men) said they don’t believe a woman should face prison in these circumstances. Just 14% of respondents backed criminal sanctions.

On average, two women a day from Great Britain contact one digital provider alone (Women on Web) to request abortion pills because they cannot access legal services, due to distance to the clinics and/or work and childcare commitments, says bpas.

There can also be a wait for treatment, which is a particular challenge for those who are ill as a result of pregnancy and may mean they no longer qualify for early medication abortion as they have passed 10 weeks of pregnancy, the charity points out.

But turning to online sources potentially risks criminalisation. Bpas is calling for abortion to be decriminalised up to 24 weeks of pregnancy to protect vulnerable women from prosecution and improve access to care.

Only 14% of those polled knew that abortion remains a crime if performed without the permission of a doctor outside government approved clinics and hospitals. Women face up to life in prison under the terms of the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act.

Bpas has launched a short film to raise public awareness that abortion remains underpinned by a law dating back to 1861.

Last year the BBC reported that the medicines regulator, the MHRA, seized almost 10,000 sets of abortion pills over three years headed to British addresses.

The fact that women may know they are breaking the law and risking prosecution may mean they are less likely to seek help if they are concerned about symptoms during or in the immediate aftermath of treatment, says bpas. 

Last week, the government confirmed it would repeal sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act, which criminalised abortion, in Northern Ireland, by the end of October.

This means that women who use abortion medication online no longer face criminal sanction, and clinicians can now begin to consider how best to provide services in Northern Ireland.

But this legislation still remains in place in Great Britain. Decriminalising abortion would mean abortion could be governed in the same way as other healthcare procedures, insists bpas.

“No woman should face prison for needing to end her own pregnancy and we are pleased though unsurprised to see the British public agree with us. The decriminalisation of abortion does not mean deregulation, but it would mean women could seek help and support closer to home,” said Clare Murphy, director of External Affairs at bpas.

“We need to get rid of these offensive laws that have no place in a world which respects women and their ability to make their own decisions for themselves and their families in pregnancy, and we need an abortion framework fit for women’s needs in the 21st Century,” she added.

Dr Kate Guthrie of Women on Web, commented: “It’s very clear from the despairing emails we receive that the current legal framework around abortion in the UK simply does not meet the needs of many ordinary women trying to do their best for their families and themselves – including those in the most desperate of circumstances.

“Some women just cannot access clinics. Decriminalisation of abortion would enable women to obtain regulated care and support in the way that best met their own needs.”

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