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Words by Katie Alexander
It’s been a draining few weeks for women across the globe.
In the US, the right to have an abortion was removed as a constitutional right after nearly 50 years, calling into question who gets to make decisions about our bodies and personal choices.
But if the overturning of Roe v Wade has highlighted one thing, it’s that abortion access is far from perfect in the UK either. Considering one in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime, the possibility of anti-abortion movements flaring up in the UK is a growing threat to women, girls and people with wombs.
So why should we be worried?
First and foremost, it’s important to note that abortion is still a criminal act in England, Scotland and Wales. This means both pregnant people and abortion providers have to meet the strict restrictions of the 1967 Abortion Act in order to terminate a pregnancy, if they don't, the abortion can be seen as a crime.
As well as a legal cut-off of 23 weeks and six days, there are other hoops for expectant mothers to jump through; specific grounds must be met, such as a risk to the life of the pregnant person – or where continuing with the pregnancy would cause ‘grave permanent injury’ to their physical or mental health.
Abortions can only take place beyond 24 weeks in extreme circumstances, for example if the mother’s life is at risk or if the foetus would be born with a severe disability.
As a result of these restrictions, medical professionals are required to grill women on why they want an abortion. This must then be verified by two doctors to confirm the requirements of the Abortion Act are met.
Mollie*, who had an abortion last year, told Tyla that these rules made her ordeal ‘longer than it needed to be’ and shared her frustration that she wasn’t ‘allowed to make decisions without the help of two doctors’.
Over in Northern Ireland, rules around abortion provision are slightly different; after decades of advocacy, abortion was decriminalised in 2019.
On paper, this is means women and girls of Northern Ireland have better legal rights to an abortion than those in England, Scotland and Wales. But in practice, abortion services are extremely limited. In fact, some 161 pregnant people travelled to England and Wales last year alone to have an abortion.
Since the rolling back of Roe v Wade, UK abortion providers have been quick to join on the conversation. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), who care for more than 200,000 women and girls a year, launched a petition calling for the UK Government to condemn the actions of the Supreme Court.
Since the fall of Roe v Wade, we’ve seen a number of MPs bring the issue of abortion to Parliament.
Conservative MP Danny Kruger recently made headlines when he stated that women do not 'have the absolute right to bodily autonomy'.
But while Kruger’s comments were widely slated, there are still those who’d like to see reproductive rights restricted in the UK; Tory leadership hopeful Jeremy Hunt, for example, who has previously called for the legal time limit on abortions to be cut to 12 weeks. This week he announced his ambition to become our next prime minister.
Also notable are anti-abortion groups such as the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, who run anti-abortion clinic protests throughout the year.
Louise McCudden of MSI Reproductive Choices tells Tyla that anti-abortion protests outside of their clinics have increased since the news broke in the US.
For as long as abortion sits within the criminal law, 'it makes it easier for that small, aggressively vocal minority to stigmatise abortion care and chip away at access', Louise says.
Others have a more complicated take on the issue; Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries sparked outage last week week when she stated that, despite being ‘unequivocally pro-choice’, she believed the current 24-week abortion limit was ‘too high’.
And Prue Leith – incidentally the mother of MP Danny Kruger, who we mentioned above – recently criticised society’s 'casual acceptance that a womb is like a garden where weeds are routinely yanked out'.
“We need women who don’t want babies not to get pregnant in the first place,” she wrote in The Spectator, touting adoption as a possible alternative to abortion.
Speaking to Tyla, Jemima Olchawski, CEO of the Fawcett Society, warns that restricting access to abortion would put countless women at risk.
"Reducing access doesn't stop abortion, but it does stop safe abortion,” she says. “With women forced to make the dreadful choice between an unwanted or unsafe pregnancy and the risks of an illegal termination.
“On top of this, reproductive rights advocates like Jemima fear that restrictions like these only make seeking an abortion more dangerous for the most vulnerable women and girls in our society.
“Of course, for the wealthy the option to travel for healthcare will still be available. It's a frightening reminder that hard-won rights can be rolled back.”
As Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy put it: "You think what you see in America couldn’t happen here? Then you don’t understand who is organising in UK politics. No one thought American Supreme Court would ever overturn a right previously granted either. These attacks on [women’s] rights won’t stop. Be prepared."