Our bodies, our choice: the case for a Scottish approach to abortion

support decriminalisation

Today Engender has released a key report highlighting current issues affecting access to abortion in Scotland, and calling on the Scottish Government to use the opportunity presented by the devolution of abortion law to put women’s equality and rights at its heart. The report, supported by Amnesty Scotland, NUS Scotland, Scottish Women’s Aid, Rape Crisis Scotland, Close the Gap, and Zero Tolerance, calls for abortion to be decriminalised, and for improvements to services, access, and education around abortion.

In Scotland the law we have inherited from Westminster means that it is currently illegal to procure an abortion without the agreement of two doctors. The organisations involved in this report are calling for abortion to be decriminalised, highlighting that it is a women’s health issue, which is a position supported by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The devolution of abortion law as part of the Scotland Act 2016 offers the Scottish Government the opportunity to remove abortion from criminal law, and follow an approach to reproductive rights based on women’s equality, human rights and international best practice.

Emma Ritch, Executive Director of Engender, said:

Emma Ritch

“Abortion healthcare is vital to women's equality and wellbeing. Across Scotland, women and families benefit from being able to safely end both unwanted pregnancies, and much wanted pregnancies that have become dangerous to the mother. Abortion is safe, and used by women across the world, with one in three women accessing an abortion in their lifetime.

“Like most Scots, Engender trusts women to make decisions about ending or continuing a pregnancy. Unfortunately, the legal and regulatory regime we have inherited from the UK means that women who have abortions are criminalised, that doctors make the decision about whether women can legally terminate a pregnancy, and that treatment is administered in a way that does not best meet women's needs. As Scotland develops its approach to abortion following the transfer of powers, we are calling for women's autonomy and wellbeing to be put at the heart of decision making."

The report also calls for the Scottish Government to waive NHS fees for women travelling from Northern Ireland to access an abortion in Scotland, something which First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has committed to exploring.

Naomi McAuliffe, Scotland Programme Director of Amnesty International said:

Naomi McAuliffe

“There is a real opportunity in Scotland for the law relating to abortion to be brought in line with international human rights law, which will mean removing it from the criminal law. People don’t want to see women going to prison for having an abortion, which is a draconian idea. We have recommended how the Scottish Government could make it fit for purpose.

“We also welcome the First Minister’s comments that women in Northern Ireland may be able to access abortion in Scotland on the NHS. This would be supported by the women’s and human rights organisations who have endorsed this report.

"It is shocking that women in Northern Ireland do not have the same rights as women in Scotland. And until politicians there stop forcing women to travel at great expense, to obtain vital healthcare, the rest of the UK must step in to support women and girls in Northern Ireland.”

Angela Alexander, Women’s Officer at NUS Scotland, one of the 6 leading organisations to sign up to the report, welcomed its publication, saying:

basic but contested human right

“NUS Scotland’s Women’s Campaign has long standing policy to defend a person’s right to choose, recognising the huge impact that abortion rights can have on many people in society, including students. We will continue to campaign to defend and extend a person’s rights and access to safe and legal abortion, including working in collaboration with other likeminded organisations like Engender, to ensure that Scotland has progressive policy on the right to choose.”

As well as calling for decriminalisation of abortion, the report highlights serious issues with provision of abortion services in Scotland, key among these being that many women seeking abortion after 18-20 weeks must travel to England in order to receive treatment. In 2011 and 2014 respectively, 233 and 182 women had to travel to England in order to access safe, legal abortions. Organisations are calling on the Scottish Government to make a number of key changes around abortion services in Scotland to standardise access to abortion and make use of advances in medical abortion drugs and healthcare provision.

later-term abortions

Sandy Brindley, National Coordinator of Rape Crisis Scotland, said:

“Access to safe abortion must be a fundamental right for all women. In Scotland, there are specific issues for women who are pregnant as a result of rape, particularly in relation to access to what is considered later term abortions (though still within the current legal time limit of 24 weeks). Along with other human rights focused organisations, we are calling on the Scottish Government to develop an approach to abortion in Scotland which more fully upholds women's reproductive rights.”

Marsha Scott, Chief Executive of Scottish Women’s Aid, highlighted the links between reproductive rights and violence against women, saying:

abortion is an issue of equality

“Access to reproductive health services and abortion is a critical component of women’s human rights. Problematic access to appropriate services, whether statutory or health service imposed, quite simply hands power to perpetrators of domestic abuse, giving them another tool for exerting their control over women and children. The report’s recommendations make a powerful case for Scotland to take a new approach to reproductive rights. We are committed to ensuring that this new approach is one that has the interests and safety of women experiencing domestic abuse at its heart.”

Engender believes that abortion must be framed as an issue of women's equality and rights and therefore must be seen in relation to other issues of women's inequality.

Anna Ritchie Allan, Project Manager at Close the Gap, said:

abortion is an issue of equality

“Abortion rights are intrinsic to realising women’s economic equality. Access to birth control and abortion has enabled women’s higher levels of educational attainment, increased the female employment rate, improved women’s earnings potential, and reduced the gender pay gap.

"Without the ability to limit and time their pregnancies, women will always be disadvantaged in the labour market which penalises women with childcare responsibilities, resulting in their concentration in part-time, low-paid and undervalued jobs and sectors.

"Women’s economic equality is not only critical to achieving gender equality, but is a globally recognised driver for sustainable economic growth.”

By releasing this report, Engender and other women's and human rights organisations are making it clear that the Scottish Government must not miss this opportunity to realise women's right to choose.

Rachel Adamson, Director of Zero Tolerance, said:

safe and frequent

“We welcome the publication of Engender's report and see this as an opportunity to reframe the conversation around abortion to keep women's rights at the centre. Our work challenging violence against women shows us that women’s inequality is both the cause and the consequence of men’s violence against women.

"Denial or impediment to accessing an abortion contributes to that inequality. When women seeking an abortion are placed under financial or emotional burden, they are denied their reproductive rights and will remain disadvantaged in our society. The recommendations in today’s report come from a wealth of knowledge and research from the women's sector and are both reasonable and comprehensive. By following these recommendations the Scottish Government can develop a progressive legal framework on abortion and ensure we continue to tackle women’s inequality.”

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