Abortion Law and Policy News:
Great Britain, Northern Ireland,
Poland, Uganda, USA
27 October 2017
Britain celebrates 50 years of the 1967 Abortion Act…
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Abortion Act in Britain. The conference: ‘The Abortion Act 1967: A Promise Fulfilled?’ was an action-packed, two-day event organised by Sheelagh McGuinness and Sally Sheldon, and hosted by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. The conference took attendees through the 50-year social, political and historical course of the Abortion Act in Britain, with excellent contributions by the panelists.
What is holding Britain back?
In the years since the Act was passed, a lot has changed – the world around us, medical technology and service provision – and many reform bills trying to restrict the Act have been tabled unsuccessfully. The application of the legislation has also changed – causing confusion. Many nurses are able to manage abortion care, but two doctors are still required to approve the procedure and medical abortion pills must still be prescribed by a doctor. Abortion is also the only clinical procedure governed by the criminal law.
One thing does persist: stigma – among parliamentarians, health professionals and anti-abortion activists. Other issues were raised that still remain to be addressed such as contextualising abortion as a reproductive right, resolving disagreements over the upper time limit and its consequences for individual women, and the extent of conscientious objection permitted if any. And the conference exposed the 50-year-long failure to make the Act a truly national law by excluding Northern Ireland.
On a personal level, for women with unwanted pregnancies, practical issues beyond legislation continue to affect access to abortion care. These include travel, time off work/study, financial resources, geographical location in relation to services and emotional support. In some ways, the Act as it stands still limits some women’s autonomy, which results in them falling through the cracks – for example, those affected by domestic violence, undocumented migrants and those beyond the time limit – potentially causing them harm. I believe the conference did not go far enough to address these situations.
Religion (the Catholic Church was referred to several times) and the politicisation of abortion remain the biggest elephant in the room – by infantilising women as individuals requiring moral supervision and reducing women to mere vessels for producing babies.
The younger generation of health professionals in the conference all expressed enthusiasm towards abortion care, calling for more information about it to be provided in lectures and work placements, and not for it to be addressed solely in relation to medical ethics… They called for role models in the field, and importantly for providing abortion as an act of social justice.
There was an overwhelming consensus at the conference that abortion should be decriminalised, to greatly expand the role of nurses in abortion care and greatly reduce the role of gynaecologists, and finally moving towards women self-administering medical abortion. All of these would take away a good deal of the bureaucracy that delays and limits access to abortion care, and importantly, calls for putting women’s rights and autonomy at the heart of any future legislation.
What is clear, however, is that many women of reproductive age have benefited from the 1967 Abortion Act, which has provided a safe and legal space for abortions for individuals with an unwanted pregnancy. The conference and the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Act remind us that women have abortions because they need them. The law and those who have contributed to developing and implementing it, and still do, have inspired and empowered many to exercise their rights daily, in Britain and beyond.
UK Supreme Court … while Northern Irish women are at Supreme Court challenging an even more outdated law
On 24 October, the UK Supreme Court began a three-day hearing on an application from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which argues that criminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland in the case of rape, incest and serious fetal abnormality, is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). This was raised by several individual cases taken by the Commission to court for redress.
Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act has never been extended to Northern Ireland, where in 1945 the Infant Life (Preservation) Act, which permits abortion only to preserve the life of the woman, was extended to Northern Ireland. Guidelines issued in March 2016 by the Northern Ireland Executive state that abortion is illegal except where a woman’s life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious danger to her mental or physical health.
The High Court in Belfast ruled two years ago that the NI law was incompatible with Article 8 of the ECHR, but said they could not change the law, only the NI parliament could do that. Then their ruling was overturned in June 2017 on appeal. Attorney General John Larkin QC, with the NI Justice Department, are opposing the Commission's appeal to the Supreme Court, claiming the NI law is not incompatible with human rights.
The Supreme Court will also rule on the question: Is the Human Rights Commission entitled to seek a declaration of incompatibility of NI abortion law with human rights or not?
“Save Women” bill with 500,000 signatures submitted to the Polish parliament
On 23 October, the “Save Women” Civic Committee tabled a bill on women’s rights and voluntary parenthood signed by almost 500,000 Polish citizens. The official threshold – 100,000 signatures – was reached within the first month. It was also supported by many extra-parliamentary opposition parties and numerous NGOs, the full list can be foundhere.
The bill calls for:
Legal abortion on request up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, and after that if there is a risk to the woman's health or life, in cases of fetal abnormality (up to 24 weeks), or fatal fetal anomaly (no time limit), or when pregnancy is a result of rape or incest (up to 18 weeks). Abortion will be financed from the state budget.
Free and accessible contraception.
Emergency contraception available without medical prescription.
Comprehensive sexuality education in schools.
Mandatory requirement for hospitals and the National Health Fund to publish a list of doctors who invoke conscientious objection to legal abortions.
Mandatory requirement for hospitals to find another doctor to manage abortion when a hospital physician refuses to do so.
Deadline of 7 days for the Medical Commission to consider a patient’s complaint in case of refusal of abortion.
The right of adolescents aged 15 years old or more to visit a gynaecologist, a urologist and/or a dermatologist without parental consent.
The lower Chamber has three months to initiate a debate on this bill, but it will be up to the ruling party whether it will be taken further – as promised in the election campaign – or be rejected.
Meanwhile, anti-choice groups are collecting signatures for a bill that aims to ban abortion in cases of fetal malformation, which is promoted by Catholic bishops and churches, and supported by the Prime Minister.
Coalition to Stop Maternal Mortality Due to Unsafe Abortion meeting, 2015
Uganda Health Ministry "celebrates" Day of the Girl Child by halting the release of guidelines on contraceptive use for sexually active adolescents
As Uganda joined the rest of the world to mark the International Day of the Girl Child last week, the recent decision by the State Minister for Primary Healthcare, Ms Joyce Moriku, to halt the release of newly developed National Guidelines and Standards for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, was sharply criticised. On 28 September this year, perhaps not even knowing it was International Safe Abortion Day, she reportedly said that the Health Ministry did not own the guidelines and that they needed to consult other stakeholders first. However, health experts and the Coalition to Stop Maternal Mortality Due to Unsafe Abortion criticised this assertion on the grounds that all reproductive health officials in the Ministry were consulted before the guidelines were finalised but that the government had jumped ship yet again at the last moment.
The rejected guidelines included making contraceptives available to adolescents who are sexually active. According to the 2016 Uganda Demographic & Health Survey, 25% of adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 are either pregnant or already mothers, one of the highest rates in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Coalition said this was not the first time that government had refused to launch health policies and programmes. They pointed to a ban on comprehensive sexuality education announced in 2016 as well as the withdraw of standards and guidelines on prevention of maternal mortality due to unsafe abortion in 2015.
PHOTO: Michael S Williamson/Washington Post After a month of unprecedented personal obstruction by Donald Trump, appeal court orders him to desist and "Jane Doe" has an abortion
More than a month after she made her decision, "Jane Doe", a young Mexican migrant in Texas, USA, was able to have an abortion on 25 October after a federal appeals court in Washington, DC cleared the way for a federal district court to order the Trump Administration to stop blocking her access and allow her to get the care she requested.
Brigitte Amiri, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Reproductive Freedom Project, had this reaction: “Justice prevailed today for Jane Doe. But make no mistake about it, the Administration's efforts to interfere in women's decisions won't stop with Jane. With this case we have seen the astounding lengths this administration will go to block women from abortion care. We will not stop fighting until we have justice for every woman like Jane.”
Excerpt of Jane Doe's statement, via her guardian:
"My name is not Jane Doe, but I am a Jane Doe. I’m a 17-year-old girl that came to this country to make a better life for myself. My journey wasn’t easy, but I came here with hope in my heart to build a life I can be proud of. I dream about studying, becoming a nurse, and one day working with the elderly.
While the government provides for most of my needs at the shelter, they have not allowed me to leave to get an abortion. Instead, they made me see a doctor that tried to convince me not to abort and to look at sonograms. People I don’t even know are trying to make me change my mind.… This is my life, my decision. I want a better future. I want justice."