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Reflections on #AbortionActat50

Last week, our Policy and Parliamentary Manager, Emma Trottier, attended a conference titled: ‘The Abortion Act: A Promise Fulfilled?’, which asked important legal, historical and political questions about women’s reproductive rights in the UK. While asking questions about our direction of travel, the conference also explored the strategies and steps needed to make change happen.

The Abortion Act passed on October 27, 1967, meaning it just turned 50. A half century. To put that into perspective, the Act was voted into law the same year the Beatles released their hit song ‘all you need is love’. Or, how I like to think of it, the Act was passed two years before Neil Armstrong and the gang landed on the moon. Slightly outdated given the progress in medicine and women’s rights over the last 50 years.

Setting that aside momentarily, the Act was a significant achievement in 1967. Developing a legal framework for the provision of abortion in Great Britain gave women a safe and legal alternative to backstreet abortions. It prevented harm – and in many cases life-threatening harm – caused by unsafe abortions. But it also reduced inequality of access. While wealthy women could afford an abortion, women from poorer socio-economic backgrounds had to resort to swallowing lead or relying on the wire coat hanger method. The Abortion Act made the procedure for terminating a pregnancy legal and brought it into an environment where medical standards were met. It equalised access and reduced risks to women’s health.

At the conference, women who campaigned for the Abortion Act 1967 shared their experiences of getting the law enacted as well as their views on the relevance of the law today. The law was called a ‘job half done’, as concessions had to be made to get the bill passed into law. One of these concessions was the two doctor rule, whereby two doctors would need to authorise a woman’s abortion before it could be performed. One campaigner, who started campaigning for a woman’s right to an abortion in the 1960s, called the two doctor rule the price that had to be paid to get the law passed – it was ‘the best that was gettable’ at the time.

While recognising the importance of the Act, the challenges were noted and discussed in-depth. Women still don’t have equal access to abortion services, which is true for women in Northern Ireland where abortion remains illegal, but also for women in Scotland, who are forced to travel to England for later abortions. The discrepancy in service provision in Scotland is not new. It’s long been an issue, but what progress is being made to provide women in Scotland with later abortions? How do we recruit the skills needed?

Last week, Engender warmly welcomed the Scottish Government announcement that women would be able to take the second of the two abortion pills at home, but the pills won’t stop the need for improved service provision. Women in Scotland shouldn’t have to travel to England for an abortion after 18 weeks when it’s the law in Scotland that women are able to have abortions up to 24 weeks. As I was sitting at the conference, hearing about the struggles women in Scotland face in accessing later abortions, it wasn’t the first I’ve asked myself: what are the avenues for redress when the state duty to provide women with the option of terminating a pregnancy up to 24 weeks isn’t met?

The conference also looked at the stigma associated with having an abortion. The conversation on stigma was sparked by frustration – and maybe anger – over media continuing to refer to abortion as a controversial or contentious issue. What other legal, safe and routine procedure in Great Britain gets met with that kind of reporting? And it’s not just the words which contribute to this. You’ll probably know the imagery regularly used in abortion reporting , but let me paint a picture. Usually, it’s a faceless woman’s stomach; a well-advanced baby bump. Or it’s a picture of a woman looking distressed, sitting on the floor with her head between her legs, hands on her temple. These images add fuel to the fire of those who are anti-choice, propagating the misconceptions around abortion and criminalising women who decide to exercise their reproductive rights. The conference left me grappling with more questions, not least of which: how do we shift the narrative on abortion? How do we create space for evidence over ideology? How do we promote the use of other images?

Over the last fifty years, the sustained attack on women by anti-choice organisations and politicians has left pro-choice coalitions on the back-foot, defending the practices laid out in a 50 year-old Act instead of pushing a discourse on progressive reforms. This isn’t so much a criticism as it is a reflection on how much time pro-choice coalitions have spent – and continue to spend – on protecting women’s existing rights from regression. Protecting what we currently have is no easy task, particularly when so many people in positions of power are hesitant to talk about the subject, let alone make public calls for progress. But there’s hope. In England, MP Diana Johnson and MP Stella Creasy have led the charge on progressive reforms, and we’re eagerly waiting to see MP Johnson’s decriminalising bill.

As for here in Scotland? Well, the anniversary of the Abortion Act was met with minimal reception, but did include a motion, lodged by a SNP MSP, asking that the 24 week time limit be reviewed regularly. And unfortunately, no, it wasn’t meant in the progressive sense of ‘let’s start meeting our legal obligation to provide women in Scotland with access to an abortion up until 24 weeks’. Scotland must be bolder; it can refuse to continue undermining women’s reproductive rights through legal restrictions. It can seize the opportunity to develop a Scottish approach to abortion, which incorporates improved, modernised and standardised service provision underpinned by a progressive legal framework. Our collective work is cut out for us, but we’re hopeful.

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