Abortion should be a medical matter, not a criminal one. The law needs to change

Hilary Freeman
Photograph: Alamy

There has been a predictably overwrought response to the election manifesto promises of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats to decriminalise abortion. Rightwing and Catholic commentators alike imagined hordes of heavily pregnant women at abortion clinics, demanding their fully formed foetuses be evacuated from their uteruses. Just because the law said that they now could.

I, unfortunately, know far more than I want to about what utter nonsense this emotive, anti-abortion rhetoric is. On 26 September 2012 I ended the life of my much-wanted daughter, Elodie, at 24 weeks’ gestation. It’s the hardest and most painful thing I’ve ever done. One thing I now know, with certainty, following this traumatic experience, is that no woman would choose to terminate a pregnancy that late on unless she felt there wasn’t any other option. And no doctor would countenance it, whatever the law said.

Decriminalising abortion isn’t a policy promise designed just to win votes. It’s a sensible response to representations from many organisations, including the Royal College of Midwives, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the British Medical Association. It would bring the UK into line with more enlightened countries such as Canada. Most importantly, it would mean that consenting, adult women finally had agency over our own bodies. Because abortion should be a health issue, not a criminal one. We wouldn’t force a woman to donate her kidney to her sick child, would we? Yet the law still allows us to force women to carry foetuses to term against their will, to be vessels.

The law still allows us to force women to carry foetuses to term against their will, to be vessels

Many people are unaware that in the UK in 2019, abortion is still, technically, a criminal offence. This is because the Abortion Act 1967 is underpinned by a Victorian law, the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. Rather than replacing the outdated law, the 1967 act merely modified it. Thus, abortion became legal only up until 24 weeks (except for cases where foetuses are severely ill or disabled, or a woman’s life is at risk) and only if two doctors agree to it – taking consent away from the individual woman and putting it into her doctors’ hands. No other medical procedure requires legal authorisation as well as the patient’s own consent. The penalty for breaking this law? In theory, life imprisonment.

In practice, very few women go to prison. But the law does mean that you can’t get abortion pills at your GP’s surgery and are restricted in where you can have a termination. It also causes delay, so women often have to wait several weeks before they can have the abortion they’ve requested, meaning – in a grim irony contrary to the spirit of the law – that they are much further along in their pregnancies than anyone would desire.

Labour has promised to decriminalise abortion without time limit, while the Lib Dems will retain the 24-week limit. There’s absolutely no evidence that more women will have abortions simply because it will become easier. That’s frankly insulting. In Canada, which legalised abortion in 1988, there has been no increase at all; in fact rates have been decreasing in the past decade.

But pro-lifers don’t just want to prevent decriminalisation. They want to further restrict abortions by banning them after 12 weeks’ gestation. This is misguided. Sometimes, knowing that she has time to make a decision means a woman chooses to go ahead with a pregnancy rather than rushing into an abortion before a legal deadline.

My termination would have been legal up until birth even under the current law because my daughter had a severe and extremely rare chromosome disorder, which meant she was unlikely to survive to term and that, if she did, she would be born with painful and debilitating disabilities and probably die shortly afterwards. I knew I had to prevent her suffering.

But it wasn’t until I was almost six months’ pregnant, following many invasive tests, that doctors diagnosed her condition. Had the abortion time limit been lower, I could have been forced to make a decision before I knew if she was viable, to play Russian roulette both with her life and mine. I might have ended up terminating a healthy baby based on guesswork in a rush for a deadline. Many women don’t find out what’s wrong until late in their pregnancies. That’s why legalisation without a time limit is essential.

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Let me tell you the brutal reality of a late termination. I lay on a hospital bed while a sombre doctor passed a needle through my belly into my daughter’s heart, giving her a lethal injection of potassium chloride. Horribly, they call this feticide. I then carried her around, dead inside me for two days before I was admitted to the hospital maternity unit, induced and, following a traumatic and painful labour, I gave birth.

A woman would choose this only because she had no option, not because she’d “changed her mind” about pregnancy. Neither do doctors like performing late abortions. The statistics say it all: in 2018, 80% of NHS-funded abortions took place at under 10 weeks. Just 289 terminations took place after 24 weeks – 0.1% of the total. Until abortion is fully decriminalised, we are only a slippery slope away from countries such as El Salvador, where women are jailed for having stillbirths and miscarriages. We need to distinguish ourselves from these woman-hating places. We need to distance ourselves from the backward-looking US, where abortion rights are under attack. Women should not be treated as criminals for wanting full rights over our own bodies.

• Hilary Freeman is a journalist and author