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MPs to vote on decriminalising abortion in Northern Ireland
On 23 October, Diana Johnson MP will bring a new bill to the House of Commons to decriminalise abortion in England, Wales and – crucially – Northern Ireland. The bill is co-sponsored by a cross-party group of MPs in response to growing calls for Westminster to address Northern Ireland’s archaic abortion law, which has been condemned by the Supreme Court and by UN Human Rights body CEDAW.
Women in Northern Ireland are threatened with life imprisonment for ending a pregnancy, including in cases of rape or fatal foetal anomaly. Last year nearly 1000 Northern Irish women travelled overseas to access abortion services. The new bill calls for the repeal of sections 58-59 of the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 – the same law which still criminalises abortion in England and Wales.
Flour to be fortified with folic acid, to help prevent neural tube defects
After decades of campaigning by medical bodies and women’s healthcare charities, it has been announced that the government will introduce the mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid, a vitamin which helps prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida. At present, the UK has one of the highest rates of neural tube defects in Europe, with around 1,000 pregnancies affected every year. Many of these cases will result in the painful decision to terminate a wanted pregnancy.
Folic acid can prevent neural tube defects, but only if taken extremely early in pregnancy or ideally before conception. Since around half of UK pregnancies are unplanned, many women will miss the window before realising they are pregnant. The fortification of flour is a simple public health intervention that will boost levels of folic acid in women by ensuring it enters foods that are widely consumed by the public.
First pregnancy sickness drug licensed
Last month saw the launch of Xonvea, the first nausea medication to be licensed in the UK specifically for use in pregnancy. At present, women suffering with pregnancy sickness are too often told that they must endure their symptoms, on the basis that there is no treatment safe for use in pregnancy. We are hopeful that this will give doctors the confidence to prescribe anti-sickness medication to pregnant women who need it. We blogged on the importance of this announcement, and its significance in writing pregnant women’s needs back into a foetus-centric script.
¾ NHS Trusts are flouting guidelines by denying women caesareans on request
A new report by UK charity Birthrights has found that only 1 in 4 NHS Trusts offers maternal request caesarean sections in line with NICE best-practice guidance. The report found that at the majority of Trusts the process of requesting a caesaren was lengthy, difficult or inconsistent, with women reporting dismissive, judgemental and even hostile responses from medical professionals.
It is unacceptable that a woman’s choice in childbirth should come down to a postcode lottery, or that she should be forced to negotiate a difficult and opaque process simply to access her preferred method. Women’s reasons for requesting a caesarean are many and varied – ranging from a previous traumatic birth experience, to a mental health issue, to a simple personal decision based on evidence. Their choices should be respected.
Champion of choice
Our champion this time is Sarah Ewart, a Northern Irish woman who travelled to England for an abortion in 2013, having received the heartbreaking news at her 20-week scan that her baby had anencephaly and would not survive. Ewart is mounting a legal challenge to Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion law, which prevented her from receiving the care she needed in her own country.
10,000 abortion pills seized by authorities
The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) says almost 10,000 sets of abortion pills have been seized in the last 3 years, intercepted on their way to British addresses. Any woman who takes these tablets to end a pregnancy is risking up to life imprisonment, under a Victorian-era law.
A recent study showed are many reasons a woman may resort to ordering pills instead of attending a clinic, ranging from childcare commitments to a coercive home environment. Women in England still cannot take misoprostol at home, which leaves them with a choice: take misoprostol at the clinic and risk miscarrying on the way home, or order pills online. MPs have called on the new Health Secretary Matt Hancock MP to address this issue, which would go some way to relieving the problem. But to protect all women from criminal sanctions, we need decriminalisation.
Teenage pregnancy: understanding the decline
New research published by bpas has found that lifestyle factors including low levels of alcohol consumption, use of social media, and more focus on family time may have influenced the sharp drop in teenage pregnancy – which has fallen by 55% in the last decade. The report, which surveyed over 1000 16-18 year olds, also found a strong focus on achieving good grades and a very negative view amongst the group of teenage pregnancy, which is still sadly highly stigmatised. Meanwhile, social, romantic and sexual relationships are increasingly experienced online, perhaps reducing opportunities for unplanned sexual encounters. Only 1/3 of those surveyed said they had had sex, and those who evaluated their sex education as ‘good’ were more likely to delay sexual activity.
MPs press the government on Northern Ireland abortion rights
New figures have shown that every day four Northern Irish women are forced to travel for a termination. The new data was released amidst growing calls for the government to grant Northern Irish women access to abortion services in their own country. This month, Stella Creasy MP coordinated a letter signed by more than 170 cross-party, cross-nation representatives, calling on the government to stop treating NI women as ‘second class citizens’. We urge them to listen.
Champion of Choice
This month’s champions of choice are the Atfield family – three teenagers and their dad who are walking from Pisa to Rome, all in aid of BPAS! Follow their journey on twitter @choicewalkers, or you can donate to support them here. Thank you, Atfields!
The UK’s first safe zone is upheld by the High Court
Ealing Council, which made history in October by introducing the first UK ‘safe zone’ outside an abortion clinic, has resisted a legal challenge brought by anti-choice campaigners. The UK High Court ruled this week that the safe zone was justified, saying,
“There was substantial evidence that a very considerable number of users of the clinic reasonably felt that their privacy was being very seriously invaded at a time and place when they were most vulnerable and sensitive to uninvited attention”.
We have been campaigning since 2014 for buffer zones to be introduced outside abortion clinics, and we worked closely with Ealing Council and local residents’ group Sister Supporter last year to achieve Ealing’s safe zone. We are delighted to see it upheld by the High Court, but we know similar protests are happening at over 40 other clinics across the country. We need a national solution, to protect women everywhere from being harassed as they access healthcare services. Click here to email your MP.
After Ireland’s historic vote, the time is #NowForNI
After Ireland’s landslide vote to #repealthe8th amendment, attention has turned to the north, where women are still threatened with life imprisonment for ending a pregnancy. In the wake of the vote, MPs held an emergency debate in the House of Commons, which included impassioned pleas for change in Northern Ireland from across the House. This was quickly followed by a Supreme Court judgment which condemned Northern Ireland’s abortion law as “untenable” and in need of “radical reconsideration”. We have been working closely with Stella Creasy MP to call for Westminster to intervene and urgently repeal the Victorian-era law which criminalises women in Northern Ireland, as well as in England and Wales.
Wales permits the home use of misoprostol
Wales has followed Scotland’s lead by allowing women who have an Early Medical Abortion to take the second tablet, misoprostol, at home. The home use of misoprostol is very safe, recommended by the World Health Organisation, and standard practice around the world for early medical abortion. The Welsh decision will spare women the inconvenience of attending multiple, clinically unnecessary appointments, and the indignity of having to rush home before beginning to pass the pregnancy. England, however, has been left behind, and women are still compelled to take misoprostol on clinic premises before travelling home – risking cramping and heavy bleeding en route.
We have been urging the Health and Social Care Secretary, Jeremy Hunt MP, to act on this issue and afford women in England the same dignity they would have in Scotland or Wales. Click here to email your MP and keep up the pressure.
New report shows women still feel stigmatised over their reproductive choices
A new report published by Public Health England, “What do women say? Reproductive health is a public health issue”, has found that many women feel their reproductive choices are judged or stigmatised. A survey of over 7,500 women showed that embarrassment or a fear of being judged are still important barriers that prevent women from seeking care, whilst, when deciding whether or when to have children, women feel that society’s expectations do not match up with their own preferences or lived experiences. Overall, the need to normalise and destigmatise reproductive healthcare decisions is crucial: women must be supported and empowered to make the right decisions for them, without fear of judgement.
Champion of Choice
This month’s champion is Ealing Council, which was the first local authority to bring in a safe zone outside an abortion clinic last year, and has recently resisted a legal challenge from anti-choice campaigners. It’s fantastic to see them protecting women in the area, along with local residents’ group Sister Supporter. Keep up the good work, Ealing!
UN committee calls on UK to decriminalise abortion
In the same month we celebrated 100 years of partial female suffrage in the UK, our antiquated abortion law – passed well before women could vote – has been heavily criticised. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) has published a damning report on women’s rights in Northern Ireland, finding that NI’s abortion restrictions are subjecting thousands of women and girls to “grave and systematic violations of rights”. The report recommended the urgent repeal of sections 58-59 of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act – a law that applies throughout the UK and threatens women who end a pregnancy without legal authorisation with life imprisonment. Our #WeTrustWomen campaign calls for this piece of legislation to be repealed – sign up here for updates.
#Repeal campaign gathers pace
South of the border, meanwhile, the Republic of Ireland is preparing for a historic referendum abortion. Irish expats are being encouraged to travel #HomeToVote this May to repeal Ireland’s draconian laws, which ban abortion unless a woman’s life is at risk. If you have travelled from the Republic of Ireland for a termination, please tell us about it (anonymously if you prefer) – your testimony will help the campaign for #repeal.
Home Office consultation closes, as 40 Days For Life resumes clinic protests
The government consultation on abortion clinic protests has now closed and they are reviewing the evidence. We were overwhelmed by the response – over 1600 people used the Back Off website to tell the Home Office what they think. Meanwhile, 40 Days For Life resumed its “vigils” across the UK on 14 February, which means 40 days of intimidation for our patients and staff. There is compelling evidence these protests cause serious distress: we urge the government to act.
Major hospital trust bans elective caesareans
Oxford University Hospitals will not offer caesareans to women on request, even if they have had a traumatic labour in the past. UK charity Birthrights has received testimonies from several women who were denied an elective caesarean, flouting NICE guidelines. We agree with Birthrights that this “denies women the individual respect and consideration they are entitled to”. Women must be given evidence-based information, and their choices must be respected.
Boots finally cuts the price of emergency contraception
Almost a year after we first wrote to them, Boots has finally reduced the cost of emergency contraception to £15.99 across all its UK stores. We are so pleased that Boots is now offering a more affordable version of this product, which gives women a second chance to avoid an unintended pregnancy. However, other barriers that prevent access to EC remain in place, including a medically unnecessary consultation. Click here to join the next phase of our campaign for swift, easy access to EC.
Government launches consultation on buffer zones
As our Back Off campaign gathers pace, the government has launched a consultation into anti-abortion clinic protests. Home Secretary Amber Rudd pledged to take action, saying, ‘It is completely unacceptable that anyone should feel harassed or intimidated simply for exercising their legal right to healthcare’. Anybody can respond to the consultation – if you’d like to tell the government what you think, please email them using our quick online tool.
Public backlash as anti-abortion MP is appointed Vice-Chair for Women
There was public outcry in January after Maria Caulfield, the Conservative MP for Lewes who led the opposition to Diana Johnson’s decriminalisation bill last year, was appointed Conservative Vice-Chair for Women. We were incredibly disappointed by the decision, and the negative response to her appointment was reported by the Telegraph, BuzzFeed, the Sun and even the Daily Mail. Meanwhile, X-Files actress Gillian Anderson – whilst in Hollywood unveiling her Walk of Fame star – denounced the decision as “a huge, monumental, devastating step backwards.” The public reaction makes it clear: if you want to represent women, you must support decriminalisation.
New guidelines for Relationships and Sex Education
Following their decision that Relationships and Sex Education will be compulsory in English schools from 2019, the government is consulting the public on what the lessons should include. They are especially interested in views of young people, teachers and parents – if you’d like to respond, please click here for more information.
Champion of Choice
This month’s Champion is actress Jamie-Lee O’Donnell, alongside the entire cast of new drama I told my mum I was going on an RE trip. This honest, moving play tells real women’s experiences of abortion, and was broadcast on BBC2 earlier this month. Catch up on iPlayer here.
Back Off: four local councils try to stop abortion clinic protests, as the Home Office calls for a national review
Following a vote in Ealing in October, Portsmouth, Southwark and Birmingham councils have all now followed suit, voting to explore the potential for buffer zones outside local abortion clinics as a response to persistent anti-abortion activity on their doorsteps. Meanwhile, the Home Office has announced it will undertake an in-depth, national review into these protests, pledging to consider further action to protect the women accessing health services. If you have been affected by anti-abortion activity outside a clinic, please share your experience anonymously here.
Ireland: parliamentary committee votes to repeal the 8th amendment
Ireland’s Oireachtas committee has voted to repeal the 8th amendment, the constitutional ban on abortion, in a historic move ahead of next year’s abortion referendum. Ireland’s current strict abortion laws force thousands of women every year to travel to England to access basic health services, and have been condemned by UN bodies for breaching human rights. Committee members cited the evidence that huge numbers of women are resorting to illegal pills as a determining factor in the decision.
Boots fails to lower the cost of emergency contraception before the festive season
Boots has failed to lower the inflated price tag of emergency contraception in the majority of its stores, despite a letter signed by over 130 MPs, and in the knowledge that Christmas is the most common time to conceive. Share this SumOfUs video to hold them to account.
Women are choosing to have fewer children
The latest childbearing statistics from the ONS show the average family size has fallen to a record low. Women born in 1971 had an average of 1.9 children, representing a significant decrease from their mothers’ generation (born 1944) who had 2.21 children on average. Two-child families remain the most common, but the proportion of women having either one or no children was the highest in decades. There are many reasons a woman may choose to have fewer children, including economic considerations. We must ensure that all women have comprehensive, easy access to both contraceptive and abortion services, so that they can plan and achieve the size of family that is best for them.
bpas withdraws from the Public Affairs Awards
bpas has withdrawn from the Public Affairs Awards, having been nominated for Voluntary Sector Campaign of the Year, due to the decision to honour anti-abortion group Both Lives Matter with the Best Campaign in Northern Ireland award. Read our open letter here. As Birthrights CEO Rebecca Schiller wrote of Both Lives Matter: “When women’s lives and freedoms are imperilled, the publicity should always be bad”.
Champion of Choice
This month we nominate Dr Asha Kasliwal, President of the Faculty of Sexual & Reproductive Health (FSRH), for their decision to join the Royal College of Midwives, British Medical Association and Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in officially supporting the decriminalisation of abortion. All four of these bodies, alongside a broad coalition of charities and other groups, support the removal of criminal sanctions associated with abortion in the UK, in line with a growing national campaign.
130 MPs tell Boots to deliver on their promise
This morning more than 130 MPs sent an open letter to Boots, calling on them to fulfil their pledge to cut the price of emergency contraception. The letter, coordinated by the Shadow Minister for Health Sharon Hodgson MP, told Boots they had “failed to live up to their clear commitment to women” – and urged them to cut the price before the festive season, when many women struggle to access contraceptive services.
Pro-choice majority in parliament call on government to extend and defend abortion access
Last week Diana Johnson MP once again called for abortion to be decriminalised in an adjournment debate in the House of Commons. The following day at Westminster Hall, Rupa Huq MP made a strong case for buffer zones to be introduced outside clinics – something which has strong cross-party support, including from several party leaders. The two debates came just as a new poll from YouGov showed that, 50 years after the Abortion Act, the majority of MPs support a woman’s right to choose.
Abortion rights for women in Northern Ireland
Following the government’s announcement in June that they will fund abortion care for Northern Irish women who travel to access treatment, the Equalities Minister Justine Greening has now announced the details of the scheme, which will include a central telephone booking system and funded travel for women on low incomes. The announcement came in the same week as a Supreme Court hearing which examined whether Ireland’s abortion law breaches the European Convention on Human Rights. The judgement is expected next year.
Family Planning Association warns of “contraceptive crisis”
The FPA has brought a petition of over 35,000 signatures to the Chancellor Philip Hammond, warning of a “contraceptive crisis” if he does not reverse cuts to contraceptive services. According to new research by the Advisory Group on Contraception, more than 1 in 3 councils have closed services in recent years. The FPA warned the cuts represent a false economy and are causing “shocking gaps in access”.
Champion of Choice
This month we nominate Scottish Minister for Health Aileen Campbell, for her decision to permit women to take misoprostol in the comfort of their home. Under the previous rules, women had to take the drug on the clinic’s premises, which meant they risked starting to miscarry on the way home and could not plan where and when the miscarriage occurred. This brings Scotland into line with standards recommended by the World Health Organisation. We hope that England and Wales may follow.
Buffer zones: #EalingMakesHistory in landmark vote
In a historic decision, Ealing councillors voted overwhelmingly to introduce a buffer zone outside the local Marie Stopes clinic, to prevent anti-choice activists from protesting in front of its entrance. Women have reported being distressed and scared by the protesters, who call patients ‘mum’ as they enter and tell them they’ll be haunted by their baby. The vote was in response to a campaign by local pro-choice group Sister Supporter. In the packed-out meeting on Tuesday evening, not a single councillor opposed the motion.
The Abortion Act 50 years on
This October marks #50YearsOfChoice: it’s exactly 50 years since abortion was made legal in certain circumstances (although not fully decriminalised) in England, Wales and Scotland. The 1967 Abortion Act was undoubtedly an enormous step forwards for women, and solved the problem of backstreet abortions which had been the leading cause of maternal death. But 86-year-old activist Diane Munday, who was instrumental in achieving legal reform, says the 1967 Act was “a job only half done”.
Decriminalisation of abortion
Munday is campaigning for abortion to be fully decriminalised – something which has never felt more urgent in light of a worrying study published last month, which shows that British women are turning to illegal abortion pills because they cannot access clinics in the UK. We are therefore so pleased that the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists – a professional body of women’s healthcare doctors – has voted overwhelmingly to support the decriminalisation of abortion, joining the Royal College of Midwives and the British Medical Association.
Extreme morning sickness
bpas co-presented a conference this month on Hyperemesis Gravidarium (HG), to discuss the latest research and treatment options for severe pregnancy sickness. HG has hit the headlines recently because the Duchess of Cambridge is suffering, but despite the publicity it seems women in the UK are still not getting the most effective treatment. We believe all UK women deserve a royal standard of care.
bpas wins Charity of the Year
bpas has been named Charity of the Year (income over £10m category) at the “charity Oscars”, the Charity Times Awards. Bpas was praised for effective advocacy – campaigns this year have secured a 50% reduction in the price of emergency contraception and government-funded abortion care for women who travel from Northern Ireland – and for maintaining the quality of services in the face of sudden increased demand. Here’s the team with the award.
Champion of Choice
This month we nominate Professor Lesley Regan, President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, in light of their support for decriminalisation. Thank you Lesley!
Jacob Rees-Mogg ‘completely opposed’ to abortion in any circumstances
Jacob Rees-Mogg provoked understandable outrage yesterday after stating on Good Morning Britain that he is ‘completely opposed’ to abortion, even in cases of rape. This is of course completely out-of-step with public opinion – 70% of the population, including 61% of Catholics, in Great Britain now support abortion on request – a more liberal framework than we currently have in this country. His extreme stance will come as no surprise to those familiar with his voting record, but to many others ‘the Honourable Member for the 18th Century’ may now seem a little less charming.
Boots issues two legal warnings to bpas over the Just Say Non! campaign
We welcomed Boots’ public apology in July for their suggestion that dropping the price of emergency contraception would ‘incentivise inappropriate use’ (a suggestion that caused consternation among MPs and general bemusementamong healthcare professionals). Disappointingly though, Boots were slow to take action to cut the price, instead choosing to use their time and resources to issue two legal warnings to bpas. Their claims that they received ‘personal abuse’ via our online tool grossly misrepresented the messages, which included personal accounts from women who have struggled to afford EC in the past, emails from GPs who advise women when their normal contraception has failed, and messages from pharmacists, one of whom described a woman breaking down in tears upon learning the price of EC.
Boots finally agreed they will provide a more affordable product – but only after we made their legal warnings public. Nevertheless, their decision to join Superdrug, Tesco, Morrisons, Asda, Well and Lloyds in dropping the price is a welcome step. We hope will make a real difference to women – and their wallets – going forward. This isn’t the end of the campaign, however, and we will be in touch with next steps soon.
Reproductive rights for disabled women
Bpas has co-hosted an event with the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists to draw attention to the obstacles disabled women face in accessing reproductive healthcare services. The intersection between reproductive rights and disability is too often only discussed in relation to cases of fetal anomaly (particularly recently, in light of Lord Shinkwin’s attempts to restrict women’s choices in such circumstances). Consequently disabled women’s access to vital education and healthcare services has been neglected, and the additional barriers they face either in avoiding pregnancy or trying to conceive have not been addressed. Speakers at our one-day conference included artist Alison Lapper, sexual health specialist Dr Jane Dickson, Guardian journalist Dr Frances Ryan and Professor Claire de Than, Chair of the Sexual Health and Disability Alliance. The full conference report is available here.
My Body, My Life: telling real stories of abortion
We were delighted to contribute to the Open University’s My Body, My Lifeproject – a collection of abortion stories from real women in their own words, which are shared online, in a booklet, and as part of a travelling pop-up exhibition. The project encourages women to talk about their experiences, emotions, and decisions, to show others they are not alone and break the silence which still surrounds this most common of gynaecological procedures.
The exhibition takes the form of a pop-up ‘clothes shop’ – pictures on Instagram– and had a successful first run at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer. Future locations include Oxford in November, followed by Belfast and London. To read the collection of stories, watch videos and share your own story, visit mybody-mylife.org.
Anti-abortionists have a new tool in their armoury… a scented candle
An anti-choice ‘crisis pregnancy’ centre in Belfast has suggested that women may change their minds when considering an abortion if they smell a baby-scented candle in the waiting room. Stanton Healthcare waxed lyrical about the candle on Facebook, posting:
‘[We] would recommend to all crisis pregnancy centre’s (sic) the new baby powder Yankee Candle. It just smells like a new born (sic) baby. #lovelife #lovebabies #protectthemboth #loveyankeecandles’
This frankly ridiculous attempt to manipulate women did not go unnoticed online, with one woman commenting, ‘Do these candles come in the scents of shame, stigma or social isolation?’ Several negative comments were subsequently deleted by the centre. Their waiting rooms may smell lovely, but this new strategy reeks of desperation.
Champion of Choice nomination: Jess Phillips MP
This month we nominate Jess Phillips, chair of the Women’s PLP, for her tireless support of women’s reproductive choices and for coordinating a letter to Boots in support of our campaign for cheaper emergency contraception. Thank you, Jess!