The Pro-Choice Majority Demands to be Heard: Reforming British Abortion Laws

Safe and legal abortion has been widely available in the United Kingdom since the passage of the 1967 Abortion Act, a piece of legislation that accomplished for British women what Roe v. Wade would accomplish six years later for their sisters in the United States. The 1967 Act made abortion legal through the 24th week of pregnancy, provided that two doctors certified that continuing the pregnancy "would present a risk to the physical or mental health of the woman or her existing children." In cases where a woman's life is threatened by the pregnancy or in cases of fetal malformation, there is no time limit.

The 1967 Abortion Act and the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision actually have a few things in common. Both came about in response to the public health crisis of unsafe abortion, which was killing and maiming women in both countries with alarming regularity (as it still does in countries where abortion is heavily restricted). And in their treatment of the abortion question, the texts of both the U.K. law and the U.S. decision focused primarily on the judgment and the rights of doctors, rather than the judgment and the rights of pregnant women. It is for this reason that women in the U.K. have decided that it's time for a change, and to mark the 40th anniversary of the U.K. Abortion Act, they've launched a campaign to reform it.

As campaign organizers Abortion Rights point out, the U.K. law is out of step with public opinion. A March 2007 poll revealed that 77 percent of British citizens believe that women should be able to choose abortion in the first three months of pregnancy, and 72 percent believe that women shouldn't be forced to wait over three weeks for a safe and legal procedure. Yet many women in the U.K. still face long waiting periods for abortions, and the provision requiring referrals from two doctors presents another barrier, since some doctors interpret the law more narrowly than others. In order to bring the U.K.'s abortion law into closer alignment with public opinion, the Abortion Rights campaign has put forth the following key demands:

  • Make abortion available at the request of the woman
  • End unacceptable delays in service provision
  • End minority anti-choice attacks on current abortion rights

In support of the campaign, a new website called Pro-Choice Majority compiles testimonies from British women who have had abortions and statements of support from women. The site is reminiscent of I'm Not Sorry, Project Voice, and other nonjudgmental, testimony-based resources on abortion that seek to sidestep rhetoric in favor of reality, offering an open space for women to tell their stories as a means to decrease stigma around a procedure that 46 million women experience every year, and put a human face on a debate that too often occurs in an ideological vacuum.

The campaign is a bold move in a country like the U.K. (or the U.S., for that matter), where abortion is generally legal, but where anti-abortion activists are continually proposing new restrictions, and advocates for safe and legal abortion tend to spend most of their time holding their ground. But that's why it's such a brilliant move. At a time when anti-abortion organizations and activists are taking more and more aggressive steps to limit women's access to safe abortion worldwide, why not put forward a proposal of one's own? The U.K. campaign is a strong affirmation of pro-choice values: namely, that the decision to have an abortion is a decision that women have both the human right and the moral authority to make on their own. And sometimes the best defense is a good offense, after all.

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