Manifestos have been released and election campaigns are well underway. But a closer look at each manifesto has revealed that only two major parties are promising to decriminalise abortion in England and Wales.
Although the 1967 Abortion Act permits abortions up to 24 weeks, the Victorian-era 1861 Offences Against the Person Act was never repealed. This means that abortions performed outside of the Abortion Act's parameters are technically punishable by a lengthy prison sentence. (Both the person having the abortion and the people assisting it are at risk of criminal prosecution.)
Those parameters are stricter than you may think. As the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) explained in a statement: "The law means that abortions must be signed off by two doctors, they must take place in a hospital or specific clinics, and women must meet one of the seven criteria that allows abortion."
And its effects are incredibly damaging. "This law is the reason that women cannot access abortion pills at their GP; that if they’re in an abusive relationship, they need to find a reason to travel to a specialist clinic often quite a distance from their home; why we cannot develop nurse or midwife led services, as is already the case in Sweden, Norway, and France," the BPAS continued. "It’s a law that’s decades — centuries — out of date, and it needs to change."
Thankfully, now that abortion has been fully decriminalised in Northern Ireland, some political parties are committing to such change elsewhere in the UK. Labour and the Liberal Democrats have both promised to decriminalise abortion if elected.
Labour's manifesto states the party will "uphold women's reproductive rights and decriminalise abortions." The Liberal Democrats' manifesto clearly lays out the party's beliefs. "We believe that everyone has a right to make independent decisions over their reproductive health without interference by the state, and that access to reproductive healthcare is a human right," it reads, adding that the party will "decriminalise abortion across the UK while retaining the existing 24-week limit."
The party is also pledging to stop the harassment of people having abortions by enforcing safe zones around abortion clinics and making intimidation tactics illegal outside clinics and on common transport routes to them.
The Green Party's manifesto doesn't specifically mention decriminalisation, but does promise to "extend the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights to give women in all EU countries access to legal, safe, and affordable abortion services." The Conservatives are the only major party to fail to mention abortion. I have contacted the party for comment and am awaiting a response.
"We live in a pro-choice country, and it is right that this is finally reflected within party manifestos," noted the BPAS. "We know that MPs from across the House of Commons are supportive of decriminalisation: two previous attempts to decriminalise abortion have gained overwhelming support from MPs from all major political parties in England, Wales, and Scotland, in 2017 and 2019 respectively.
"It is clear the current law is no longer fit for purpose. We look forward to working with MPs from across the house in the next parliament to change it for the better."