Decriminalise Abortion Now

By Kerry Abel

The pandemic has had a massive effect on society over the last year and much of normal life has been changed or suspended.

We have not been able to travel, meet friends and family – and the healthcare system has been put under a huge burden. Sensibly, in April 2020, the health departments in Scotland, England and Wales changed their regulations to allow abortion pills to be taken at home with telemedicine guidance.

There is a whole raft of evidence that shows that this has been successful – with waiting times cut, access improved and high patient satisfaction.

We know that waiting weeks for an abortion impacts on people’s mental health and that taking abortion pills at home is more comfortable and dignified, eliminating the horror stories of people passing their abortions on public transport on the way home.

Being able to manage your abortion at home and not have to travel to clinics benefits those in rural communities with expensive and inconvenient public transport links and disabled people, who are often also let down by public transport; women who work, especially shift workers, and the low paid and those on zero hours contracts. It helps the majority of those who need abortions who already have children and have to arrange and pay for childcare. Those in domestic abuse situations can avoid having to creep around their partners for fear of being caught out. This in turn helps to deal with the stigma of abortions, allowing those burdened with shame to avoid confrontations and barriers to access.

Doctors using telemedicine to consult with their patients report that they are often more relaxed at home and better able to be open and honest in their consultations.

In March 2020 regulations came into force in Northern Ireland that decriminalised abortion, they repealed the sections of the Offences against the Person Act 1861. Northern Ireland never adopted the Abortion Act of 1967 and instead of taking on legislation that is already over 50 years out of date, instead they took abortion out of the criminal code completely.

We know that decriminalising abortion is not enough on its own: it goes hand in hand with proper abortion access which is free, safe, legal and local. Abortion care should prioritise the needs of the women, not hand over power to a doctor or rely on the patient being able to articulate their situation well enough to cover the buzzwords mentioned in the legislation. If someone is pregnant and says they don’t want to be, this should be trusted.

Decriminalisation doesn’t mean deregulation of abortion. There are many medical guidelines which doctors have to follow to carry out safe and legal abortions, but when gate-keeping access to abortion comes from Victorian legislation, it’s time to update it. We know we need to keep up the pressure to ensure access is fair and equal, and that people should be able to choose the right procedure for them. We think the NHS could be improved to shift abortion away from doctors in every situation, allowing specialist nurses and healthcare workers to provide abortions – this ‘task-shifting’ has been suggested by several academic studies.

Since pills have been available – and women have been forced to order pills online when their laws let them down, the cat has been out of the bag. Home use has been proven to be safe by studies over and over. It is just the political will to control women that is standing in our way and the pandemic has shown that we can change the government’s mind when it suits them.

At our 2021 AGM Abortion Rights resolved to campaign for decriminalisation of abortion. To see the fight for better access, for telemedicine and at-home abortions in this context and to campaign for women to be trusted with their decisions and have proper control over their bodies. See the motion.

The above article was initially published here by Abortion Rights. For regular updates and action on abortion rights and campaigning, sign up to Abortion Rights weekly round up newsletter.