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Are abortion rights at risk in the UK?

The situation in Britain is markedly different to the unfolding crisis in the US – but access to abortion here is more restricted than you might think

The US Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe v Wade last month disturbed many of us across the pond. In the wake of the ruling, thousands descended on the US embassy in protest against the cruel decision which has stripped millions of women of their bodily autonomy.

Many women in the UK are concerned for their own rights, too. Google searches for ‘abortion rights uk’ have skyrocketed, peaking on June 25, the day after Roe was overturned. Leading political figures have voiced their concerns, too. Economist Richard Murphy tweeted “Where the Republicans go the Tories follow. We take the right to abortion, contraception, gay rights and same-sex marriage for granted now. We shouldn’t. Very soon Tory think tanks will have their sights on all of them. Fascism is on the march,” while MP Nadia Whittome said We must now be vigilant in the UK too – anti-choice fundamentalists will work across borders to rollback rights.”

It’s certainly concerning that Dominic Raab shut down calls to enshrine a woman’s right to choose in the Bill of Rights during a debate on Tuesday, stating “I don’t think there is a strong case for change,” before Tory MP Danny Kruger went on to share his opinion that women shouldn’t have an absolute right to bodily autonomy. While Kruger’s words have been widely criticised, it’s still chilling to think such fundamental rights are regarded as ’up for debate’ in the UK in 2022.

But just how likely is it that our right to abortion will be curtailed here too? Do pro-lifers hold much sway in the UK, or are they just a vocal minority? How worried should we be? Below, we explain what rights women in the UK currently have, and how they might be under threat.

What are our current rights?

Since 1967, in England, Scotland, and Wales, abortion has been permitted if two registered medical practitioners “are of the opinion, formed in good faith” that any one of the following grounds apply: risk to the life of the pregnant woman; preventing permanent, serious injury to her physical or mental health; risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family (up to a term limit of 24 weeks of gestation); or substantial risk that, if the child were born, they would “suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped”.

98 per cent of UK abortions in 2019 and 2020 were performed to protect the mother’s mental health.

In Northern Ireland, abortion is permitted on similar grounds, although additionally abortion in the first 12 weeks of a pregnancy is permitted for any reason.

So what’s the issue?

Abortion remains a criminal offence in England, Scotland and Wales. This is because the government has not yet repealed the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act, which made it a crime for a woman to ‘procure a miscarriage’ or enlist another person to help her do so. So, if your abortion does not ‘meet the criteria’ set out in the 1967 Act, it’s technically illegal.

This July, a 24-year-old woman in Oxford will face trial for ordering and taking abortion medicine Misoprostol. She’s been charged under the 1861 Act. (Although it became legal over the pandemic to receive and take abortion ‘pills by post’ if prescribed by a doctor, if someone were to take those same pills at a later date or pass them on to someone else, it would still be a criminal offence.) 

In Northern Ireland, things are slightly different too. Abortion was decriminalised in 2019, but abortion services are still incredibly difficult to access, as the openly pro-life health minister Robin Swann has still failed to commission abortion services. The majority of Northern Irish women who still who need an abortion ten weeks after conception are still travelling to England.

Access to safe abortion isn’t great in Scotland, either. In June, The Scotsman published an article revealing that many Scottish women are being forced to travel to England for second-trimester abortions, since no health board in Scotland provides abortion care up to the legal limit of 24 weeks.

Could things get worse?

Some have warned that things could now get worse for women in the UK. It’s certainly likely that anti-abortion groups here will now feel emboldened by Roe’s overturn, and amp up their presence outside UK abortion clinics – continuing to traumatise and villify women who choose to end their pregnancies.

And it’s not just pro-life members of the public who will feel more confident in espousing their harmful views. This is also true of pro-life parliamentarians. It’s worth noting that a number of MPs – including Cabinet member Jacob Rees-Mogg – are vocally anti-abortion. Dominic Raab also dismissed calls to enshrine a woman’s right to choose abortion in the new Bill of Rights in the Commons this week.

Is it likely that things will change?

Thankfully, it seems as though UK-based pro-lifers are (for the most part) a vocal minority. Only two per cent of respondents to a June 2022 YouGov poll believed that abortion should not be legal at all, while 85 per cent believed all women should have the right to abortion. While the majority of Americans also believe that abortion should be legal, a sizeable 37 per cent think it should be illegal. So if politicians in the UK did try to curtail women’s rights, it’s likely it would be a deeply unpopular move and receive considerable pushback. In any case, Prime Minister Boris Johnson described the US ruling as a “backward step”.

It’s often tempting to view the US and UK as mirror images of each other because we share a language and have overlapping cultural interests. But the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe doesn’t necessarily foreshadow any similar decision here, just as it’s unlikely that the government will do away with gun control or ask people to start paying £2,000 to call an ambulance. While of course, the UK’s pro-choice majority must be vocal and vigilant – now more than ever – it’s perhaps ever so slightly symptomatic of our culture’s tendency to reframe every global news story in relation to how it affects us, personally, rather than how it affects the people who are actually living through it.

Still, as aforementioned, it’s appalling that abortion is still criminalised in England, Scotland, and Wales, and nigh-on impossible to access in Northern Ireland. Ultimately, abortion issues in the UK are definitely different to those in the US – but this doesn’t make them any less important. Sure, at present there’s no immediate or imminent legal threat to the current status quo, but we’d do well to remember that the status quo is far from perfect – and we can’t get complacent, either.