Charter for Choice

Dilys Cossey, ALRA: Our abortion law is no longer fit for purpose. It’s time for decriminalisation.

Dilys Cossey was the Abortion Law Reform Association Secretary from 1964-68 and was a leading campaigner for abortion, birth control and reproductive rights through her further involvement with IPPF, FPA, Brook and IPAS

Why call for decriminalisation of abortion? Surely abortion is legal? Yes, of course it is, but it is not generally realised that the 1967 Abortion Act per se only legalises abortion in certain circumstances as exceptions to the provisions of sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA) which make abortion a criminal offence.

The 1967 Abortion Act was groundbreaking legislation. This 1960s reform, in which I was privileged to be involved as Secretary of the Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA) campaigning team, reflected the social mores of that time and has served women and their families well. However, much has changed since then, not least the advent of medical abortion which has significantly transformed the abortion scene both for women and their healthcare providers.

Today the accumulated experience of nearly half a century points, among other things, to the need for clarification of the role of clinicians, for positive recognition of abortion services as an integral part of health care, for giving women autonomy in abortion choice, and for acknowledgement of contemporary social and sexual behaviour in Britain. The underlying nineteenth-century legislation is a block, exercising a ‘chilling effect’ with the threat of criminal proceedings for alleged infringements of the Abortion Act.

So, the question is: in today’s context is the Abortion Act fit for purpose? Certainly the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act is not. As the Law Commission stated in a recent scoping exercise, inviting views on whether selected sections of the OAPA should be reformed, ‘The Offences Against the Person Act 1861 is widely recognised as being outdated’. Unfortunately, the Law Commission is not intending to review the sections of this ‘outdated’ law that relate to abortion.

BPAS has already set the ball rolling in the decriminalisation debate at its meeting in the House of Commons, hosted by Kate Green MP on 16 October 2014, which included a contribution on the Canadian situation, where abortion has been decriminalised since 1988. I am pleased to support the call to regulate abortion in Britain according to the standards of the best clinical care, and invite all those who share these beliefs to join in the campaign for the decriminalisation of abortion.