50 years after the Abortion Act – what now?

TRUST WOMEN: let’s leave decisions about women’s health to the people that matter the most – women themselves (Photo: Craig Maclean)

by Jenni Gunn • 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the Abortion Rights Act—making abortion legal and free on the National Health Service.

The passing of the Act was a watershed moment in the women’s liberation movement and is rightly recognised as an important moment in the social history of the United Kingdom.

Whilst the act deals specifically with a women’s access to safe and legal abortions, and had a dramatic impact upon maternal mortality rates, granting women the right to control their own bodies aided in the overall struggle for women’s social, political and economic equality.

The basic premise underlying the Abortion Rights Act spoke directly to the idea of women’s irrevocable right to autonomy—an idea that lies at the heart of many of the hard-fought and won rights that women achieved in areas such as workplace equality and equal pay.

It is a moment that feminists should count as a victory, but it is not a victory that we can take for granted. The Repeal the 8th campaign in Ireland is it’s very own watershed moment in the history of women’s struggles on these islands.

Having had the privilege of meeting with some of the activists involved in the campaign for women’s rights in Ireland, I am daily inspired by their determination to tackle this life or death issue with tenacity and strength.

They deserve our solidarity, in both spirit and action—because their battle isn’t just about abortion but about a women’s right to autonomy.

I am convinced their work will bring access to safe and legal abortion to the whole of Ireland—and I can’t wait to celebrate with them on that day.

Abortion rights, however, will soon be back on the agenda in Scotland, as the Scotland Act 2016 transfers responsibility over abortion law to the Scottish Parliament.

With an SNP government in Holyrood, with a clear manifesto pledge to retaining the provisions of the 1967 legislation, it seems as though a women’s right to choose will be protected in Scotland—something which should be welcomed.

However, there is still significant debate, particularly concerning the “two doctor sign-off” and the fact that abortion is still technically criminalised in law.

The two doctor rule—a practice that has been severely criticised by feminist groups and also from significant sectors of the medical community—can cause unnecessary delays and put women under significant stress, according to the British Medical Association.

Current UK legislation requires two doctors to sign off on the procedure before it can take place. In practice, this doesn’t lead to women not receiving abortions, but any legislation that in any way creates barriers for women receiving medical treatment should be opposed in the strongest terms.

Devolution of abortion law would allow the Scottish Parliament to scrap this arbitrary rule and strengthen women’s rights by removing unnecessary barriers.

Allowing the two doctor rule to stand does not just seek to limit women’s access to a perfectly legal medical procedure, it leaves the decision of what is right for each women in the hands of two doctors, allowing them to make a moral decision that is not theirs to make.

It reinforces the arcane and misogynist idea that women seeking abortions should somehow be ashamed—that they are too emotional to make a decision with informed consent, and that that decision must be left to two medical professionals.

By medicalising the issue of abortion, we allow doctors to become significant actors in the decisions of women, robbing women of their autonomy and undermining their rights to make decisions regarding their own health.

This, therefore, becomes an issue so much bigger than abortion but goes right to the heart of issues about women’s liberation and the stigmatisation of women who choose to have terminations.

Women should be entitled by law to access to unfettered and free access to abortion on demand, without impediment.

Not only does this mean removing the two doctor rule, it means decriminalising abortion in its entirety—an idea which has been supported by the Office for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Abortion is a medical issue, not a criminal one. Unbelievably, in Scottish Law, a woman has no legal right to an abortion—the final decision lies in the hands of her doctors. Making abortion a criminal issue makes it unique as far as medical procedures are concerned.

It prohibits qualified professionals, such as nurses or midwives, from carrying out terminations. It forces women to give every intimate detail about their decisions and family planning and makes doctors the gatekeepers of sexual morality.

The many gains that women have made since the passing of the Abortion Rights Act should be celebrated. But we must not be complacent. Let’s use the powers of the Scottish Parliament, and not simply copy and paste Westminster laws.

Let’s seize this opportunity to grant women real autonomy—and leave decisions about women’s health to the people that matter the most—women themselves.

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