Politics

France just made abortion a constitutional right – so why is UK's abortion law so backward?

French women now have the 'guaranteed freedom' to choose an abortion. What's the law in the UK?

Pro abortion protesters march to the US embassy in May 2022. Image: Guy Bell/Shutterstock

As France becomes the first country in the world to explicitly enshrine the constitutional right to abortion, British campaigners have urged the government to rethink the UK’s 19th century rules.

French women now have the “guaranteed freedom” to choose an abortion, after 780 out of 925 French MPs voted in favour of the bold constitutional reforms.

The vote signals an era of hope for women “within [French] borders and beyond,” prime minister Gabriel Attal said.

“We are haunted by the suffering and memory of so many women who were not free. We owe a moral debt [to all the women who] suffered in their flesh,” he said.

British campaigners described the ruling as “momentous” – but lamented the weaknesses of UK abortion protections.

“Unfortunately we are in quite a different position [to France] in most of the UK,” said Sophia Moreau, deputy leader of the Women’s Equality Party.

“Abortion remains in the criminal code in England, Scotland and Wales and that means women can face up to life in prison for ending their own pregnancies outside of legal limits.”

YouGov polling shows that three quarters of Britons (74%) support changing the law to enshrine a legal right to abortion. Only 11% are opposed.

Women under the age of 40 are most likely to support such a right, with 86% in favour. Men over the age of 40 are the least likely – but 69% are still in favour.

What are the legal limits on abortion in the UK?

Accessing an abortion in the UK is typically straightforward. Statistics show that one in three women in the UK will undergo an abortion before reaching the age of 45.

According to the 1967 Abortions Act, abortion is legally permitted before 24 weeks in England, Scotland, and Wales, provided that two doctors authorize the procedure.

Abortion beyond 24 weeks is only allowed if the woman’s health is at risk of severe physical or mental harm, or if there’s a severe fetal abnormality.

Although late-term abortions are uncommon, women who seek abortions after 24 weeks risk facing criminal prosecution under the Offences against the Person Act 1861. Northern Ireland has decriminalised abortion following a 2019 referendum that repealed this 19th-century legislation.

“In the UK, you can only legally have an abortion if it is signed off by two doctors. On the surface this seems like a sensible law. But it in fact puts women at risk,” says Florence Schechter, director of the Vagina Museum, posting on twitter.

“If you don’t see a doctor to get an abortion, usually what you’ll be doing is ordering abortion medication online. Who would do this? A woman who is afraid to go to the doctor because of potential repercussions, usually from an abusive partner.

“In effect, being the victim of abuse is a criminal offense in the UK. We saw this put in action during the case in summer 2023 when a woman was sentenced to 28 months in prison for obtaining abortion pills online during lockdown.”

At least 52 women have been investigated by police over the past eight years on the basis of suspicions that abortions have taken place after the legal limit. This tally includes a 15-year-old girl who, in 2021, spent more than six months waiting to know whether she would face criminal charges after going through a natural stillbirth.

Vulnerable women are threatened by the UK’s current laws – “but it doesn’t have to be this way,” says Moreau.

“Later this month MPs have the chance to make history of their own by voting to decriminalise abortion in England and Wales,” she said.

“They must step up for women and seize the opportunity… Women have been campaigning for years and years to reform abortion laws that were enacted before women even had the right to vote, it’s time to act.”

Amendments to the new Criminal Justice Bill tabled by Labour MPs could see such criminal sanctions removed entirely. It would not change the rules for when abortion is permitted – but women would no longer face the threat of prosecution for procuring an abortion after this period.

“Women who are ending their pregnancies outside of the existing law are often immensely vulnerable and doing so under desperate circumstances,” said Diana Johnson, the MP for Kingston Upon Hull North, upon tabling the amendment.

“It is in nobody’s best interests to threaten these women with outdated Victorian criminal laws that are now 161 years old.”

The Criminal Justice Bill is currently at the second-reading stage; debate will progress over the next few weeks.

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