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Limitations of the UK’s outdated Abortion Act

As abortion access is threatened in the States, it's important to note that the pro-choice movement in the UK is no where near over.

Across the pond, in England, Scotland and Wales, abortion is legally available. The 1967 Abortion Act marks out that abortions can take place up to 23 weeks and six days of pregnancy. Abortions performed beyond this period would only take place in very limited circumstances. For example, they can be carried out beyond 24 weeks if the mother’s life is at risk or if the foetus would be born with a severe disability.

By law, abortion at any stage is only permitted on one of the following grounds; if there is a risk to the life of the pregnant person or if continuing with the pregnancy would cause grave permanent injury to a woman’s physical or mental health.

Abortions can also be carried out if there is a severe risk of injury to the pregnant person’s existing children - whether that be their physical or mental health. The final ground surround the foetus, and states that abortion is available if there is a risk that the foetus would be born ‘seriously handicapped’.

As a result of these restrictions, medical professionals must ask an individual why they want an abortion. This must then be verified by two doctors to confirm the requirements of the Abortion Act are met.

Difficulties accessing abortion care in the UK

In Northern Ireland, the abortion picture is a little different. When the Abortion Act was introduced back in the late ‘60s, it wasn’t enforced within Norther Ireland. Thankfully, after decades of advocacy, abortion was finally decriminalised within Northern Ireland in 2019. This sounds amazing on paper, but in practice has been very messy.

Due to Northern Ireland’s overbearing religious history, implementing abortion care throughout the country has been a struggle. Even now, abortion services within Northern Ireland are very limited. In fact, some pregnant people are still travelling to other countries within the UK to access care.

For the rest of Great Britain, we may appear to have a good level of abortion access on the surface, but there are some issue that run deep. With the Abortion Act in place, abortion remains a criminal offense and anyone seeking an abortion must meet the grounds stated within the Act. If they don’t meet any of these grounds, an abortion cannot be offered to them legally.

Without the approval of two doctors, both pregnant people and medical professionals performing abortions can be prosecuted. It’s important to remember that prior to the 1967 Abortion Act, pregnant people found ways to terminate their pregnancies. The need for abortions has not increased, it is only safer. Pregnant people who are unable to source legal abortion care may be left with no other choice but to turn to unsafe and illegal measures.

Abortions are essential. They are a form of healthcare that cannot be individuals need to be able to access without restrictions, requirements or influence from the law in any way.

Medical restrictions? Or restrictions of choice?

For those wanting to argue that the requirements laid out in the Abortion Act are necessary, they’re not. They have no medical ground at all. In its latest guidance, the World Health Organization states that all “medically unnecessary policy barrier to safe abortions” should be removed.

Why would it be medically necessary for two doctors to approve an abortion? Could it not be one doctor, or a nurse? At the moment, doctors are the only medical professionals who can legally approve abortions. With an extremely overrun health service and ongoing pandemic, I cannot think of a worse way to waste a doctor's time.

What about the ciminalisation of abortion? For those who are looking to seek safe abortion care and cannot, why are they deemed a criminal? There is, obviously, no medical standing for this. You wouldn’t prosecute someone for seeking medical attention at any other point in their life. It is not just to do it now.

The four grounds that are ‘worthy’ of an abortion are indescribably ridiculous. I understand that when you are seeking medical care, your medical team has the right to ask you why you feel you need that care. In cases of abortion, that answer should just be that they are pregnant and do not want to be.

By having these set, legal reasons that allow abortion to be justified is not a result of medical necessity. It is simply to undermine an individual's decision. The reason they are choosing to terminate their pregnancy is not a concern to anyone by themselves.

Medical professionals should be required to take any details from individuals which may impact the procedure itself. For example, asking when their last period was or about previous pregnancy history would be acceptable.

Finally, we’ve come to discuss my least favourite limit - the 24 week gestational restriction. This is probably the restriction that is still the most controversial. When this was first introduced, it was also stated that a foetus could be viable externally of the womb at this point.

This means that at 24 weeks of pregnancy, a foetus would have a good chance of survival if it were to be born. That is not to say they would be perfectly healthy and not need medical attention, because they would.

The biggest issue here is that medically it doesn’t hold up. Only last year we saw the UK’s most premature twins being born at 22 weeks and five days gestation. While both of these babies have spent 13 weeks in hospital, they are alive and loved.

Most importantly, both of these babies were not deemed legally viable by law, and could have been terminated at the point of their birth. With this kind of technology, having any gestational limit within abortion legistlation would be an uncessary restriction on choice.

Having a limit of 24 weeks gestation also caused huge issues for those who lose their pregnancies before this time. Whether this be due to a miscarriage or termination, a foetus does not legally exist until 24 weeks of pregnancy. Any baby born before this time period is invisible to the world.

But, to their families, they matter. To parents whose pregnancy ends in a loss prior to 24 weeks, their baby matters. As a result of outdated abortion laws, these families do not recieve any formal recognition of their child. Their medical records will be updated to state they have experienced a loss and the world will move on.

If we removed the 24 week limit, parents would receive a legal registration of their child, should they want it. Removing this time restriction would also benefit those in difficult home circumstances, such as domestic abuse, or those travelling from abroad to access abortion care.

How could Roe v Wade impact abortion care in the UK?

Despite the UK being a largely pro-choice country, I fear that if we allow Roe v Wade to be overturned, it could spark anti-abortion movements. We cannot, at any point, allow legislation to further restrict access to abortion care where ever it may be in the world.

Pregnant people deserve the right to decide what is right for them. As with any other medical procedure, we allow people autonomy over their medical choices. This should not, and cannot, be any different for abortions.

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