Fifty years ago today, David Steel’s 1967 Abortion Act made it possible to access safe and legal abortion in Britain, a right that today most of us take for granted. Sadly the same rights were not extended to Northern Ireland and to this day all but a tiny minority of Northern Irish women are ineligible for a legal abortion in their home country even in cases of rape, incest, or the diagnosis of a fatal foetal abnormality.
In this way, Northern Ireland offers us a window to the past, as well as a vision of what Britain would be like if the Act had never been introduced, with women forced to travel to neighbouring countries to access the healthcare they need or risking life imprisonment for having the audacity to decide what is right for them and their families.
Marie Stopes International works in many countries around the world, where safe abortion services are restricted and we see the tragic consequences on a daily basis. Women who come to us bleeding, sometimes even dying after resorting to whatever methods are at their disposal, from buying counterfeit abortion drugs, visiting a ‘quack’ doctor or backstreet abortionist, or taking matters into their own hands with sharpened sticks or bicycle spokes.
The simple fact is that there will always be a need for safe abortion services, wherever you are in the world. A country’s laws can either support women or put barriers in their path but either way women will do whatever it takes to end an unwanted pregnancy, risking their liberty or their lives if safe, legal abortion is not an option.
In the UK, 50 years after the Abortion Act, abortion remains a criminal offence and women still do not have the right to make one of the most fundamental decisions about her body and her life. But it feels like the tide is finally turning.
In March, Diana Johnson MP won the right to introduce a bill to fully decriminalise abortion. In June, after a campaign spearheaded by Stella Creasy MP the government announced that they would allow abortion care providers in England to offer funded services for Northern Irish women. Then in October a west London council passed a landmark decision to ban anti-life campaigners from harassing women outside Marie Stopes UK’s Ealing clinic.
For most women in the UK, this is the most visible and distressing barrier they face. Despite recent data proving widespread public and political support for women’s right to abortion, this vocal minority seek to prevent women from accessing the high quality care and support they need, using the word protest to mask their real objectives, which are to harass women they don’t know, invade their space and block their right to legal healthcare. This is completely unacceptable, and it is heartening to see MPs and party leaders from across the political spectrum supporting this issue and calling for much needed change.
Then yesterday, nearly 50 years to the day after the Abortion Act was introduced in 1967, the Scottish government announced that women would be able to take the second set of medical abortion tablets at home, where previously they had to be taken in clinic. This is significant for women who live far from the clinic and risked a real chance that bleeding could begin on their way back from the appointment.
At Marie Stopes UK we believe it is high time that women were trusted to make decisions over their bodies and their lives and we call on the government to empower women in England and Wales with the same rights.
Today as we look back and celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act and all the benefits it has brought let us not be complacent. Many barriers still remain and the time is right to call for change.