Abortion amendments rejected – but they may come back

30 January 2024

Independent health consultant Kevin Duffy reports on the proposed amendments to decriminalise abortion

On Thursday 25 January 2024, the Criminal Justice Bill Committee considered proposed amendments NC1 and NC2, tabled by Dame Diana Johnson MP and Stella Creasy MP, respectively.

Whilst they have taken two different approaches, both want to change the abortion law to ensure that no woman faces prosecution or jail time for ending her pregnancy, at any gestation. We outlined in an earlier post why we think these amendments are not necessary and should be rejected.

The good news, for now, is the Committee decided to do just that; it rejected both amendments. It is important, though, to note their reason. It was not that the committee members disagreed with the intent of these amendments but that they thought it was not for them alone to recommend this change to the law, saying that such a sensitive matter needs to be debated more fully by all MPs.

It is possible that Johnson or Creasy or one of their co-conspirators will table a new amendment during the Report Stage in February. We should assume that this will be the case and prepare for it.

It is important that we encourage our MPs to take a stand against decriminalisation and to be willing to be a voice in the House of Commons, calling out the harms caused to women by telemedicine abortion and pills-by-post.

We can address the issue of decriminalisation from three perspectives: the law, medical guidelines and care for women.

The law

Decriminalising abortion would make abortion legal for any reason, right up to the moment of birth.

This would include sex-selective abortions or an abortion merely because the mother has decided she would rather discard her baby. It would mean that a woman could falsely obtain pills for a DIY abortion late into her pregnancy and take these pills at grave risk to herself and her baby with no legal consequences.

Our team at Christian Legal Centre wrote to the Committee, noting such extreme consequences and arguing that “these amendments have no place in a civilised society, and are reckless as they relate to the life and dignity of the unborn child and its mother.”

Medical guidelines

The current legal limit for a woman using the abortion pills on her own at home is up to the start of her tenth week of pregnancy. It is likely that removing this legal restriction would result in many more women using these pills during their second and third trimesters.

The World Health Organisation, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the abortion drug manufacturers each consider it to be unsafe for women to self-manage their medical abortion after twelve weeks. The guidelines issued to medical professionals recommend that from 12-weeks gestational age, the abortion pills should only ever be used under medical supervision in healthcare facility.

Our written evidence to the CJB Committee warned that removing women from the current abortion law could lead to many more women choosing to self-manage their abortions in an unsafe manner. This increase in the number of unsafe abortions is likely to cause much more trauma to women than may have been caused by the past prosecutions being cited as reasons for decriminalisation.

Care for women

In the committee meeting, Jess Phillips MP used very emotive language when telling her fellow members about the trauma suffered by women when they are investigated by the police and subsequently prosecuted for an illegal abortion.

The number of such cases is thankfully very small, representing less than 1-in-20,000 of women using pills-by-post. That said, advocates for decriminalisation will continue to leverage these heart-rending stories when it comes to the Report Stage debate in the Commons.

We must show our care for these vulnerable women, and whilst we do not want their cases to be leveraged for decriminalisation, perhaps we could call upon Parliament to consider new guidelines for police investigation and subsequent legal prosecutions. New guidelines could recommend non-custodial sentences and provision of emotional support and any necessary care to help women deal better with these challenging situations.

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