Photo: Matt Hrkac on Flickr

Steph Pike considers the new authoritarianism’s latest phase

The 1967 Abortion Act exempts women from prosecution if they have an abortion up to 24 weeks and two doctors agree that the pregnancy would be a risk to their mental or physical health. This leaves women open to prosecution and imprisonment under the archaic Offences Against the Person Act 1861. That women can be, and are, prosecuted under this act came as a shock to many women, after mother of three, Carla Foster, was jailed last year for taking pills to end her pregnancy after 24 weeks.

Her prosecution and imprisonment caused widespread outrage and focussed attention not only on the outdated law under which she was prosecuted, but also on the worrying increase in police investigations of and prosecutions of women for terminating pregnancies. In response, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists called for abortion to be decriminalised, and advised their members not to report women to the police if they believe they have illegally ended their pregnancy.

The prevailing view is that abortion should be a healthcare issue and that no woman should be prosecuted, let alone jailed, for terminating a pregnancy. In response to this, Labour MP Diana Johnson has tabled an amendment which would fully decriminalise abortion. The amendment has cross-party support and is due to be debated in the next couple of months.

Disappointingly, and in yet another sign that the Labour leadership is out of step with public opinion, it has been reported that senior Labour figures are trying to water down the amendment in a move that would still leave some women open to prosecution. They argue that it should still be an offence to have an abortion over 24 weeks and that the amendment goes too far and would provoke anti-abortionists.

Both arguments are nonsense. The only way to deal with the threat from the anti-abortion lobby is not to capitulate to them, but to strengthen abortion rights for women, and that means completely decriminalising abortion and being absolutely clear that abortion is a healthcare, not a criminal matter.

The reality is that only a tiny minority of abortions happen after 24 weeks. The best way to prevent late abortions is to ensure all women have access to free abortion services on demand. There will always be times, however, when women need to end a pregnancy after 24 weeks; when this happens, whatever the circumstances, women need healthcare, support and understanding.

Diana Johnson’s amendment must be fully supported; anything less is a betrayal of women.

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Steph Pike

Steph Pike a is a revolutionary socialist, feminist and People's Assembly activist. She is also a  published poet. Her poetry collection 'Petroleuse' is published by Flapjack Press.