On Monday 13th March Diana Johnson MP introduced a ten minute rule bill to decriminalise abortion. The bill was successfully voted through by 170 votes to 142 and will now be brought forward by a cross-party group of MPs.
A large number of constituents contacted me ahead of the bill, the vast majority of them asking me to support it but a few asking me to oppose it. I was in the Commons to vote in favour and would like to take this opportunity to explain my reasons.
In England and Wales, abortion remains a criminal act punishable by a maximum sentence of life imprisonment under the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861. The Abortion Act 1967 set out conditions under which a woman could have a legal abortion (i.e. by obtaining the signatures of two doctors and meeting specified conditions, which are much stricter after 24 weeks’ gestation) but did nothing to change the criminality of procedures which did not meet those conditions.
Evidence suggests that some vulnerable women are potentially committing a criminal offence because they are unable to access legal abortions and instead buy pills online. Practitioners are also deterred from working in the field by the threat of legal action.
I firmly agree with Ms Johnson’s proposal that abortion should be taken out of criminal law. The existing safeguards (including those mentioned above, as well as the banning of sex-selective abortion and the fact the procedure can only be carried out by licensed practitioners) can be retained by Parliament. There is no evidence from countries such as Sweden, Canada and Luxembourg which have already decriminalised abortion to suggest that this has led to an increase in late-term abortions. The UK currently has the harshest penalty of any country in Europe and it is time that this was addressed by Parliament.