The Daily Mail’s attempt to talk up a storm over the Royal College of Midwives’ decision to support the British Pregnancy Advisory Service’s (bpas) We Trust Women campaign, which aims to decriminalise abortion and scrap the 24-week limit for terminations, backfired somewhat. The Mail wanted to unseat Cathy Warwick, the RCM chief executive, who also serves voluntarily as chair of the bpas board. But instead it prompted one of the richest media discussions about the abortion law that we have seen for some time.
The RCM used the opportunity the Mail-led furore created to explain that midwives support women, not only through the birth of wanted babies, but also when women decide to have abortions. Indeed, more than 50 midwives work in abortion services run by bpas. The RCM’s position on abortion, which it re-asserted this week in response to the Mail-sponsored fuss, is a model of pro-choice principle. It set an example to other medical colleges, demonstrating how to behave under the media spotlight – stand firm and argue for what you believe.
In turn, bpas used the opportunity to flesh out the bones of the We Trust Women campaign, which was launched in February. The aim of the campaign is to take abortion out of the criminal law, rendering it subject to the same vast body of regulation that governs all other medical procedures.
Until recently, who knew that abortion was still illegal in Britain? It’s prohibited by the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which stipulates that any woman who induces her own miscarriage can be sentenced to life in prison. This applies from the moment a fertilised egg implants in her womb to the moment she gives birth. The 1967 Abortion Act, often described as the law that ‘legalised abortion’, did nothing of the sort. Rather, it created exemptions to prosecution – but only when the procedure was carried out by a doctor (not a nurse or midwife), in a specially licensed clinic or hospital, and then only if two doctors certified that the woman’s reasons met certain conditions, and (except in exceptional circumstances) the pregnancy was under 24 weeks gestation.
Any abortions that take place without this authorisation are illegal. So a woman who buys pills online and induces her own abortion can be prosecuted and imprisoned, whether she is three or 33 weeks pregnant. The news of the prosecution in March of a woman in Northern Ireland for inducing her own abortion drew attention to the absence of even limited access to abortion in the one part of the UK. (In Northern Ireland, the exemptions of the 1967 act do not apply.) Another woman in Northern Ireland is awaiting trial – and it is likely that more will follow as women find it easier and cheaper to get abortion pills online than travel to England.