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Labour Manifesto To Review Abortion Law Amid Calls For Decriminalisation

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A Jeremy Corbyn government would review the law on abortion with a view to decriminalising women who terminate their pregnancies, the party is set to declare.

Labour’s manifesto, due to be published on Thursday, is expected to include a call to strengthen and protect women’s reproductive rights, HuffPost UK can reveal.

Insiders believe the move will result in an update of the current legal framework and repeal of a Victorian law that still makes abortion a criminal offence.

Although the issue will remain a matter of conscience for individual MPs to pass any revised legislation on a free vote, the party is keen to conduct a review to set out options for reform.

The move is aimed at bringing the law in England and Wales into line with Northern Ireland, which following recent changes has the most liberalised stance on abortion in the entire UK.

Several party sources who attended Labour’s manifesto-setting meeting last weekend said that there was agreement on the inclusion of the issue. “It’s time to review it, the law hasn’t changed since 1967,” one said.

The 1967 Abortion act legalised abortion under certain strict conditions, if two doctors agree that continuing a pregnancy would affect a woman’s mental or physical health.

But the 1967 act did not repeal the 1861 Offences Against The Persons Act, which still technically means that anyone who attempts to “procure her own miscarriage” is committing a criminal act and subject to a jail sentence.

Northern Ireland was always exempt from the 1967 reform, but last month MPs voted to abolish the 1861 act too, meaning the province is the only part of the UK where the practice is decriminalised.

Pro-choice supporters campaign for Northern Ireland abortion rights (Photo: NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Pro-choice supporters campaign for Northern Ireland abortion rights (Photo: NurPhoto via Getty Images)

There are about 200,000 abortions every year in Britain, with 98% funded by the NHS. The overwhelming majority take place in the first three months, around 8% in the second trimester and fewer than 0.1% after 24 weeks.

Backers of decriminalisation say that it would allow women to avoid multiple appointments and let them take the abortion pills in the privacy of their own home. The World Health Organisation supports such practice, and decriminalisation operates in Australia and Canada.

Full decriminalisation was raised during the manifesto meeting last Saturday, and shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon said he was willing to back the idea.

Shadow attorney general Shami Chakrabarti pointed out the legal implications and there were warnings that move could spark a backlash from some anti-abortion campaigners. Following consultation between Chakrabarti and Burgon, a compromise form of words was agreed, sources said.

Stella Creasy, the Labour candidate for Walthamstow, told HuffPost UK that decriminalisation was long overdue.

“We finally will treat women as capable, breathing citizens,” she said. “Right now, if you’re a woman, you can’t actually choose to have an abortion in England and Wales – somebody else makes that choice for you.

“At the heart of this is do we want women to have the same equal rights over their bodies that men have. If you take away the criminal element of the law you can have a fully medical procedure.”

Creasy led a cross-party group of MPs who voted by 332 to 99 last month to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland.

She hit back on Tuesday at the DUP’s new election manifesto, which pledged to “protect mothers and unborn life again”.

“Having won the argument in Northern Ireland, it is an anomaly now,” Creasy added. “Arlene Foster now presides over the most progressive abortion legislation in the UK, but I would like my constituents to also be treated as adults capable of making choices.”

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) launched a “We Trust Women” campaign in 2016, calling for full decriminalisation. They were supported by the Royal College of Midwives, the Fawcett Society and End Violence Against Women Coalition.

The British Medical Association is a strong proponent of reform, arguing that “abortion law is also out of step with the emphasis on patient autonomy found elsewhere in medicine”.

This summer, the BMA put out a new policy statement that decriminalisation would meant that instead of abortion being a crime for which there are some exceptions, it would be lawful except in exceptional circumstances.

The current law is “stigmatising for both women and healthcare professionals who are providing a legal and necessary service,” it said. “The BMA believes that doctors’ ability to provide supportive care and treatment for women is hampered by this punitive approach.”

There are also calls to enforce ‘buffer zones’ outside abortion clinics to protect women from having to run the gauntlet of protestors.

Two clinics in London were forced to declare bans on protests within a 100m radius, but the Home Office concluded after a lengthy consultation that buffers did not have to be rolled out across England and Wales.

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