Alabama as a warning: UK abortion legislation does not protect the woman’s right to choose.
Samantha Dulieu is currently studying International Human Rights Law, writing about women and the law and reproductive justice. Here she talks about how Alabama is a warning to us all. Follow her on twitter here.
The banning of abortion across the American South is the logical end of weak legal protection for women’s fundamental rights. While many may look at the US and consider that such harsh policies could not be replicated here, the UK’s legislation on abortion remains patchy, paternalistic, and essentially in violation of a woman’s ‘right to choose’.
The so-called ‘heartbeat bills’ being pushed through the American legislature are based on spurious scientific evidence. A pulse can be detected at 6 weeks gestation, but rather than this proving the existence of a baby with a heartbeat, it would be more accurate to say that the group of cells is only a heartbeat - an organism pumping blood but without any discernible human features, limbs, a brain, or even a heart as we know it.
Most women do not know that they are pregnant at 6 weeks, this amounts to a period that is up to two weeks late, at a point when many pregnancy tests will not even provide accurate results. A bill that only allows terminations before a woman knows she is pregnant is effectively a ban on all terminations.
"A bill that only allows terminations before a woman knows she is pregnant is effectively a ban on all terminations."
The US has become a breeding ground for debate on this matter where scientifically no debate exists. Whatever the law on abortion may be in any particular area, the rate of abortions that take place remains the same. Where harsh laws exist, this only means that more women die from the complications of having a termination illegally and unsafely. One in six maternal deaths is caused by complications from unsafe abortions, despite evidence from the World Health Organisation that when regulated it is one of the safest medical procedures. In some countries with strict prohibitions on the procedure, this figure rises to 60% of all maternal deaths.
Access to abortions has been accepted by different societies at various points in history, either as granted by male legislators pursuant to the needs of the country, or in private, accepted as a practical pre-condition of having a uterus. Abortion was scarcely mentioned in law until the end of the nineteenth century when it was outlawed almost globally according to the laws of the largest colonial powers. Prior to this, midwives often held the dual role of midwife and abortionist, and the essential nature of each task was respected. In many countries in the Eastern Bloc, abortions were made available on request, perhaps less as a result of burgeoning feminist theory than as a necessary precondition of women’s access to the workforce, but this was beneficial to women nonetheless.
That the evangelical right has now grasped onto this issue was not inevitable. Right-wing groups started their assault on women’s right to choose in the 1960s and 1970s, when movements for women’s liberation most threatened the patriarchal status quo. In this context it is difficult to interpret their intervention as the protection of unborn foetuses and not the control of women’s reproductive capacity.
"In domestic law, abortion is presented as an aberration, or moral quandary, despite the fact that it is one of the most common medical procedures a woman can undergo, and indeed 1 in 4 women will have a termination in their lifetime."
As this movement has taken flight in the US, and in many other countries around the world, women in the UK may breathe a sigh of relief, believing that the legal sanction of abortion here is sacrosanct. This is far from the case. ‘Procuring a miscarriage’ was punishable by up to a lifetime’s penal servitude under the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act. It is largely accepted that this draconian law was overturned in 1967 with the entering into force of the ‘Abortion Act’, the passage of which was motivated by increasing deaths at the hands of back street abortionists. The Act in fact offers little legal protection to women, and is certainly not the incarnation of a woman’s right to choose. This piece of legislation exists to protect the doctor who may perform an abortion, as long as he or she believes that the woman’s need for a termination complies with the conditions set out by law, they may perform the procedure without risk of punishment. Doctors in the UK may refuse a woman a termination if they feel it is not to her benefit, and they may conscientiously object to performing one, unlike any single other medical procedure.
In domestic law, abortion is presented as an aberration, or moral quandary, despite the fact that it is one of the most common medical procedures a woman can undergo, and indeed 1 in 4 women will have a termination in their lifetime. Doctors are therefore still posited as the ‘gatekeepers’ of a woman’s access to a termination, more than this two doctors must agree that to perform the procedure would be in compliance with the law. All of this for a procedure that in the over 90% of cases where terminations occur before 12 weeks of pregnancy, now only comprises the taking of two tablets. Before 12 weeks of pregnancy there is negligible risk to the patient, and certainly less risk than carrying a pregnancy to term, statistically one of the most dangerous things a woman can do.
"It would be beneficial for the UK, as a country with a liberal abortion law, to set the example of what legal protection of women’s rights can look like."
It may come as a surprise to some that women in the UK, excluding Northern Ireland, do not have the right to a termination on demand. There is perhaps despondency that despite the law, very few doctors would refuse a termination in any case, private clinics offer this service without prejudice, and that therefore the situation will naturally drift towards liberalisation. Alabama, Georgia, Missouri and Ohio are our warning. A woman’s right of access to a termination will not be fulfilled until this is available on request, without consideration by lawyers or doctors as to what they believe an acceptable precondition for not carrying a pregnancy to term may be.
As debates rage, it is important to consider both that right-wing interference in the issue is a comparably recent phenomenon, and that there is a limit to the effectiveness of guaranteeing gender-specific rights through legislation that can be broadly interpreted or overturned to the detriment of women’s fundamental rights. It would be beneficial for the UK, as a country with a liberal abortion law, to set the example of what legal protection of women’s rights can look like. Since abortion has entered the medical sphere and technological advances have made it a simple and affordable procedure, it must be considered that in actual fact, the best abortion law would be blank sheet of paper.
Illustration by Ashley Lukashevsky