Today is the 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act (1967) receiving royal assent and passing into law.
We have a tendency of treating this law as having legalised abortion completely, resting complacently on our safe and legal access to abortion, but this is not the case.
Abortion is still a criminal offence. Not just in Northern Ireland, but in the rest of the UK. All the abortion act does is decriminalise abortion under a few very specific circumstances.
The specific circumstances, in practice, are box-checking exercises. Two doctors must agree that the pregnancy is less than 24 weeks, and that continuing the pregnancy would cause greater harm to physical or mental health than terminating it. In practice, therefore, there’s usually few hurdles as pretty much any doctor will agree that not being pregnant is a bit better for your physical health than being pregnant, and that not having a pregnancy you don’t want is a bit better for your mental health than having a pregnancy you don’t want.
Nonetheless, there is this spectre of illegality of abortion, with the same criminal sanctions, from a law that is over 150 years old, that apply in Northern Ireland also applying in the rest of the UK outside of these very specific circumstances.
Fifty years on, surely it’s time for change. We need Northern Ireland to have the same access to ending pregnancies that exist in the rest of the country. And for all of us, all of the criminal sanctions need to go–just as penalties for gay sex were repealed, surely those for abortion need to disappear.
What we need is precisely what the womb-botherers accuse us of wanting: abortion on demand. I’ve written about this before: it’s not a bad idea–it’s a good one. Abortion available, without reason, at any point a person wishes to end a pregnancy. No criminal sanctions for anyone ending a pregnancy. No requirement of two doctors–indeed, in many instances, a nurse would be suitable.
Instead of laws restricting, let us have laws that protect abortion: laws ensuring the safety of the procedure, and laws ensuring that anybody who wants an abortion is able to access one.
Another thing we need, fifty years on, is to think more about the way that we talk about pregnancy and abortion. You probably didn’t even notice that I never said “pregnant woman” throughout. This is because it’s not just more precise to point out that not everybody who gets knocked up is a woman, but also because it really is very easy to not use gendered language. Legal protections are for anyone who wants an embryo or foetus out of their uterus. Let’s move towards inclusive language when talking about pregnancy and abortion, because abortion and trans rights are allied struggles: both for bodily autonomy and liberation from a biological essentialist views that a woman is defined by reproductive role alone.
In its time, the Abortion Act was radical legislation and has no doubt improved lives–and more than likely saved a few. But the world is moving on, and it’s time to move with it. We must never be afraid to demand more, because we all deserve more.