Why we need to decriminalise abortion and give women agency to make their own decisions

Abortion has been high on the social agenda in recent months.

The Coronavirus pandemic necessitated a change in practice. So regulation around home abortions were adapted and the pills needed for early medical abortions (before 10 weeks) were allowed to be taken at home.

Unsurprisingly, this thoughtful kindness to allow women to go through this devastating experience privately, at home, sparked a huge debate on both sides.

Advocates of the decision looking to make a permanent change to the draconian 1967 Abortion Act and other, most notably, Christian Concern, claiming the decision goes against the purposes of the Act and beyond its remit.

Fortunately, after taking the case not just to the High Court but also to the Court of Appeal, Christian Concern lost.

Unfortunately, this is isn’t a rare occurrence. It’s happening across the globe.

Six US states- Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas- have already categorised abortions as non-essential medical procedures, effectively using the pandemic to crack down on female reproductive rights.

This temporary change in the UK guidelines marks a significant shift towards the liberalisation of female sexuality.

But as usual there’s a catch- it follows a phone or video consultation and an approval by not one, but two medical professionals.

What is the need for this approval? Isn’t abortion legal in the UK? Can’t a woman make that decision without the approval of two, doctors, most likely men?

Well, actually no she can’t, and I found out the hard way.

On a bleak January day, in a train station toilet at the end of, what appeared to be just another day at school, I stood mouth gaping at this small white stick.

A small stick with the power to change my entire life. I peeked; one eye open to see the result.

Positive. I was pregnant. I was scared. I was 13.

After the initial shock, I leaped into action; I took the day off school ‘sick’, called the GP for an appointment, and then went through the most painful process of repeatedly explaining to numerous health professionals how I had “got myself into this situation”.

How is an interesting question.

I was in an abusive relationship with an older man who had told me that there was a pill for a man.

I know, how ridiculous this might sound now, but at the time I was young, naïve and in love: so, I swallowed every cruel, manipulative word.

I was fortunate as I was able to have an abortion, some would say ‘on demand’, and try to carry on with my life.

But the 1967 act was merely an amendment to the 1861 Offence Against the Persons Act, showing that control of this specific fertility issue was moved away from the state and onto the medical profession.

Feminists have rightly argued that the act of 1967 resulted in the medical paternalism implicit in the idea that an abortion is between a woman and her doctor.

This enabled the state to implement a more efficient strategy in the deployment of power over women; done by granting autonomy to the medical profession in the decision-making process, thus medicalising the issue of abortion.

And really, that’s what UK abortion laws are about. They reflect the persistent desire to regulate female sexuality.

So, if society can take one positive from this pandemic, it should be to decriminalise abortion, give women the agency to make their own decisions and to seek medical advice, not permission.

* Helena Bongard is a Lib Dem member who lives in London.

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  • Jenny Wilson 4th Oct '20 - 1:59pm

    Helena, what a brave piece. Thanks for speaking out. We need to reform the law and decriminalise abortion – I hope our members see this piece and use it as a call to action

  • Many areas need to be taken away from the NHS and made available via pharmacies (or on-line pharmacies), but like much of govn there is a lot of needless empire building going on. Being able to buy from overseas pharmacies makes many regulations and laws in this country hopelessly outdated, may be one of the few benefits of Brexit that this area opens up as I presume a lot of the laws follow EU regs and norms.

  • Thank you for sharing this Helena, so important to hear this so society continues to maintain and progress female rights. I’m sorry you have had this in your life but our Silence does women no favours. Your voice is very powerful and we all gain.

  • Surely the supreme test is that a woman who wants an abortion is able to have one. Are you saying that the present situation does not create that, I thought it did, but stand to be corrected.

  • richard underhill 4th Oct '20 - 10:07pm

    Helena Bongard | Sun 4th October 2020 – 1:00 pm
    David Steel has repeatedly said that avoiding back street abortions was the main purpose of the 1967 Act. When asked about Northern Ireland he wanted to amend the 1861 Offence Against the Persons Act, A referendum in the Republic shows a change in the demography.

  • The author has a very painful experience of this area, which deserves understanding and sympathy but that is not the best place to approach difficult topics from.
    There is a flaw with the understanding of this area:

    “that’s what UK abortion laws are about. They reflect the persistent desire to regulate female sexuality.”

    This is not the case, we don’t regulate cancer treatment in order to control health choices of those who put themselves at risk of greater risk of developing cancer, we do so because medical treatment has consequences and we need to ensure it is appropriately delivered. We regulate the sale of even comparatively safe drugs like Ibuprofen, again this is not for a desire to control people but to minimise risk.

    This is not to say that there may be changes required in the law to make treatment more effective (e.g. the double doctor sign off has always seemed excessive) as a result there are probably improvements to be made. However, doing so needs to be based upon accurate understandings of why we have certain aspects in place and what principals we wish to apply.

    Any discussions should avoid claims such as:
    “approval of two, doctors, most likely men?”

    Aside from the fact that most GPs are women, two thirds of doctors specialising in Obstetrics & Gynaecology are women (over 80% in the small field of community sexual health). The proportion of women among other health care professionals someone seeking an abortion would interact with will be even higher.

    As the stress of approaching medical services can sometimes be even higher than the experience of the actual treatment experience, everyone should be clear that they can choose to see female medical staff and it is not like there is a shortage of women in the field to see them, they should feel free to choose the sex of their medical professional.

    This is complex area, it needs to be discussed with all the information and an understanding there are many difficult questions to address.

  • Peter Hirst 6th Oct '20 - 1:11pm

    Abortion though necessary at certain times should be viewed as something to be avoided. Every child should be a wanted one and adequate access to birth control coupled with proper education should avoid the need for most cases. Perhaps we should look at some form of birth control, excluding abortion being default for people of a certain age range.

  • But as usual there’s a catch- it follows a phone or video consultation and an approval by not one, but two medical professionals.
    What is the need for this approval? Isn’t abortion legal in the UK?

    My understanding is that the need for two medical professionals is to satisfy the 1967 Act. Whether the reasons for this requirement are still relevant today, I don’t know. However, the usage of phone and/or video consultation should simplify the satisfaction of this requirement, plus there are other situations such as the sale of financial products where it is common for second person to be involved to confirm the purchaser is clear about and happy with what they are signing up to.
    However, as the articles author indicates, making this normal, really requires the Act to be amended, which gives opportunity to vested interest groups to meddle and make more substantive changes to the status quo…

    This temporary change in the UK guidelines marks a significant shift towards the liberalisation of female sexuality.
    Does the author really mean “sexuality” or are they really referring to women owning their own reproductive capacity?

    My only concern about making it easier for women to get an early medical abortion, it the point the author makes: “… this thoughtful kindness to allow women to go through this devastating experience privately, at home, …” is that nowhere does the author also suggest that ready access to (unbiased) emotional support and counselling services is also a requirement – given the number of counselling services now also moving to phone/view consultations, this also should be relatively easy to deliver.

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