Health Secretary signals backing for decriminalising abortion

The Health Secretary has signalled she would back the decriminalisation of abortion as MPs prepare to vote on proposals for major changes to the law.

In an interview with The Telegraph, Victoria Atkins said her voting record, which includes support for decriminalisation and buffer zones outside abortion clinics, “speaks for itself”.

MPs usually get a free vote on abortion because it is considered a matter of conscience, meaning members are not put under pressure to follow party policy.

Ms Atkins told the paper: “I’m very conscious as Health Secretary that whatever the House decides if there is a vote, my department will be the one to either maintain the status quo or to deliver change.

“And so at this stage, I’m not going to say anything publicly because I just want to see how the debate develops. But my voting record speaks for itself.”

Ministers have faced calls to repeal sections of a 19th-century law in England and Wales after abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland.

In 2019, the UK Parliament backed moves to repeal sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA) 1861 in Northern Ireland – with questions raised about how Westminster would respond to equalise the legislation across the UK.

The 162-year-old law banning abortion was amended in 1967, legalising abortion with an authorised provider up to 28 weeks, which was lowered to 24 weeks in 1991.

There are very limited circumstances in which an abortion is permitted after 24 weeks, like when the mother’s life is at risk or the child would be born with a severe disability.

MPs are set to vote in March on two amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill.

Labour former minister Dame Diana Johnson is calling for a new clause to remove women from the criminal law relating to abortion.

A cross-party group of 25 MPs led by Tory Caroline Ansell has also tabled an amendment that would lower the abortion time limit from 24 to 22 weeks.