A new Bill aims to redefine how the law sees abortion
At midnight on Monday, many Catholics across Portsmouth diocese began a fast, not to be broken until Communion the next day. And at Tuesday’s Masses, priests wore purple vestments, signifying penance, and were encouraged to use the prayers for the Votive Mass for the Progress of Peoples.
Why the sombre mood, and the prayers? Because October is the anniversary of the 1968 Abortion Act receiving royal assent. And on Tuesday, just as the Catholic Herald was going to press, MPs backed by 208-123 the first reading of a bill on the complete decriminalisation of abortion.
It’s only a Ten Minute Rule Bill, meaning it is unlikely to get any further, let alone become law. But it represents a campaign which has acquired strength, and which could be the most serious legislative threat to unborn lives since the 1967 Abortion Act.
The decriminalisers point out that the 1967 Act did not, strictly speaking, legalise abortion; it just set out certain exceptions to the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act, which made abortion illegal. Notoriously, one of those exceptions – that concerning a “risk … of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman” – has been used to justify the vast majority of the nine million abortions carried out since.
Diana Johnson, the Labour MP who brought the Bill, has given two chief reasons for wanting decriminalisation. The first is that it would allow women to take abortion pills at home. This would be welcomed, Johnson argued, by women unable (for whatever reason) to get a medical abortion, perhaps because they wanted to keep it secret from their family.
The second reason is intriguing: that the law, by making abortion officially illegal, effectively makes a statement about the procedure. “I wonder,” Johnson told parliament in May at the Bill’s first reading, “if any of us truly believe that those women, in such difficult circumstances, really should be seen as criminals.” Twice Johnson dwelt on the idea that abortion is “inherently criminal”. And she quoted the Australian feminist Jo Wainer, who said of a similar law in Tasmania that it meant “for the first time women will be recognised as the authors of our own lives. With that comes our full citizenship.” The implications for the citizenship of the smallest members of British society were of course not mentioned.
And while the Bill’s consequences for unborn children are obviously its most disturbing aspect, there are other objections. As the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children points out, women are sometimes coerced into abortion. “Not having to give any reason for abortion and removing the requirement for two doctors to see a woman first will make this all the easier for abusive men.”
The Bill also has a strange lacuna. Johnson has insisted that it doesn’t mean total decriminalisation and “abortion on demand”. But she has given little indication of what a new regulatory framework would look like, saying only that “Parliament would need to have an evidence-based debate” and that late-term abortions would not become more easily available. A lot is left up to the medical bodies, such as the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
Northern Ireland will be looking on with interest: the Bill would automatically decriminalise abortion in a region which prohibits it. Like the push for decriminalisation, this is more likely to come through some future bill. But Johnson’s effort shows where things are moving. And she has put the fundamental question at the centre of her cause. At stake is not just this or that regulation, but what the law expresses about the morality of abortion.
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