Campaigners call for abortion decriminalisation, while Scottish Government backs current law

Pro-choice groups say Scotland should use newly devolved powers to modernise abortion law

ON THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY of the Abortion Act 1967, pro-choice campaigners say women’s reproductive rights are not being met by the law, and that abortion should be treated as a health issue, not a criminal justice one.

In England, Scotland and Wales, abortion is a criminal offence unless the procedure has been agreed by two doctors and takes place within 24 weeks of pregnancy. Abortion law was recently devolved under the Scotland Act 2016, but the Scottish Government has confirmed that it does not intend to make any changes.  

Feminist policy organisation Engender partnered with Scottish Women's Aid, Rape Crisis Scotland, Zero Tolerance, Close the Gap, Amnesty Scotland and NUS Scotland to publish a report earlier this year which called for the decriminalisation of abortion and an improvement in service provision.

"Scotland has the opportunity to remove abortion from criminal law, bringing it in line with international human rights obligations." Alys Mumford, Engender

Speaking to CommonSpace, Alys Mumford, Communications and Engagement Manager at Engender said: "The fact that abortion is still not decriminalised in Scotland comes as a shock to many people.

“The laws around abortion mean that women who have abortions are criminalised unless two doctors approve her decision, and that treatment is often administered in a way that does not best meet women's needs.

“These barriers restrict women’s reproductive choices and her ability to make decisions about her future, as well as adding to the stigma of abortion which still exists in Scotland despite it being one of the safest and most regularly performed medical procedures. 

“Scotland has the opportunity to remove abortion from criminal law, bringing it in line with international human rights obligations, and enshrining the principle of women’s equality and reproductive rights.”

While stigma remains an issue, with protests commonly taking place outside the premises of abortion providers in Scotland, campaigners have pointed out that polling suggests public opinion is predominantly in favour of access to abortion. Despite this, there is a sense that fears over a backlash on the issue pose a barrier to progress.

Abortion Rights Committee Scotland, which also supports full decriminalisation, has joined Engender this week in highlighting unequal access to abortion across the UK and within Scotland. Campaigners note that provision differs between health boards and that access to abortion beyond 18 weeks in Scotland is very limited. 

"50 years on it is time to make bolder moves for women’s equality." Alys Mumford, Engender

This has resulted in some women travelling to England for procedures, largely due to the presence of more private and charity-led health providers in England.

Decriminalisation is regarded as an important step in allowing abortion to become fully understood and treated as a health issue, and Engender has proposed the creation of a national framework to standardise access.

Mumford explained: “Currently, abortions are not performed in Scotland beyond around 18 weeks of pregnancy, despite the fact that this is within the legal limits of the Abortion Act, and 80 per cent of abortion providers support the expansion of provision in Scotland up to 24 weeks.

“Women are therefore forced to travel to England to access this medical service, meaning women who are unable to take time away from work, find somebody to care for any dependents, and afford the associated costs of travel and accommodation are simply unable to access abortions beyond 18 weeks.

“The 1967 Abortion Act was a vital moment for women’s equality; helping to end backstreet abortions and making it easier for women to make choices about their own bodies, subject to the approval of two doctors.

“But 50 years on it is time to make bolder moves for women’s equality which is why Engender and our partners are calling for the decriminalisation of abortion and equality of access for women in Scotland.”

“As set out in the Programme for Government we have no plans to change the law on abortion." Scottish Government spokesperson

Engender is already convening legal expert groups on the issue in order to establish a stronger grounding for what the process might look like in Scots law, and have published a comparison of abortion law across Western countries.  

Minister for Public Health and Sport Aileen Campbell announced yesterday that Scotland would become the first country in the UK to allow women to take an abortion pill at home, as opposed to taking it at a medical centre or hospital.

The decision has been criticised by anti-abortion group Society for the protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), which likened the move to “a return to the days of back street abortions”.

Mumford, however, said that this development would have a “positive impact” on women accessing abortion services. She explained: “The ability to take misoprostol at home within the first ten weeks of pregnancy means that women from Scotland will no longer have to face the indignity and stress of going through an abortion while travelling home from a clinic.

“Instead, women can choose to be in the familiar environment of their home.

“There is much still to do to ensure that women can easily access abortion healthcare free from stigma in Scotland, but we are delighted that this step brings Scotland in line with good practice and medical evidence.”

Asked whether the Scottish Government will consider using its newly devolved powers to decriminalise abortion, a spokesperson said: “As set out in the Programme for Government we have no plans to change the law on abortion. We are continuing to work with NHS boards on the provision and improvement of abortion services in Scotland.”

Picture courtesy of Andy Lederer

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