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bpas Reproductive Review
British Pregnancy Advisory Service logo


Thursday 16 October 2014 5:00pm - 7:00pm

Regulating abortion in Britain - time to move on from the criminal law?

Panellists include:

Professor Sally Sheldon, Kent Law School, University of Kent; author, Beyond Control: Medical Power and Abortion Law.
Professor Joanna Erdman, MacBain Chair in Health Law and Policy, Dalhousie University, Canada.
Ann Furedi, chief executive, British Pregnancy Advisory Service.

The meeting will focus on whether, in the 21st century, we can find a better way to regulate abortion than through an antiquated Victorian law. Abortion in Britain is a criminal offence under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. The 1967 Abortion Act creates an exemption from prosecution for women who meet the grounds for abortion and the professionals who care for them. This means that, where women or health care professionals are accused of failing to meet the legal grounds for abortion, they can be treated as criminals and could potentially end up in prison.

Is this really the best way of regulating abortion? One in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime; and this is accepted, provided, and publicly funded. Caring for these women requires doctors and nurses prepared to provide the service, who are regulated to high clinical and professional standards. In countries such as Canada, where abortion has been removed from the criminal statute and is regulated by the same standards as other healthcare procedures, there are no more abortions than there are in Britain.

The 1967 Abortion Act was a well-crafted piece of legislation that has served women and doctors well. But as abortion services have developed to use safer procedures at earlier gestations, it is becoming increasingly difficult to meet the standards of clinical best practice while satisfying the requirements of the criminal law. Nurses are unable to play as full a role in abortion care as they could; women are prevented from using early medical abortion methods in the most acceptable way; and abortion doctors find themselves required to spend hours on routine paperwork rather than the care of their patients.

In recent years, opponents of abortion have attempted to interpret the law in such a way as to indicate that doctors are routinely failing to fulfil the terms of the Abortion Act. Official investigations into these claims have shown that the abortion service as a whole works within the law, and that it works well. But the effect of media smear campaigns and political attention has had a chilling effect on doctors working in the abortion service, and makes women nervous about accessing the treatment they need. This meeting is an attempt to discuss how we can move to a situation where abortion is regulated according to women’s needs and the best standards of clinical care.

For further information, contact .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Also read:

Four good reasons for Britain to decriminalise abortion altogether. The most recent national abortion statistics confirm that abortion is integrated into public health policy, and provided safely and effectively to women who continue to need it. So why do we still have a criminal law? Reproductive Review, 12 June 2014

Commentary: Why the UK doesn’t need an abortion law at all. Joyce Arthur shares the experience of Canada, where abortion was decriminalised a quarter of a century ago. Reproductive Review, 17 June 2014