MPs have won the right to introduce a bill to parliament which would decriminalise abortion for the first time by repealing a law that dates back to Victorian times.
A ten-minute rule bill introduced by Diana Johnson, the Labour MP for Hull North, sought permission of the House to change two sections of a law passed in 1861, before women had the vote. It succeeded by 170 votes to 142, a margin of 32.
Johnson argued that the law was unfair and inappropriate in an age when women can and will access abortion pills by post because they want to be able to terminate their pregnancy in the privacy of their own home.
As the law stands, doing so is technically punishable by life imprisonment under sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act – both for the woman and for anyone, including a doctor, who helps her.
“This is the harshest criminal penalty of any country in Europe, underpinned by a Victorian criminal law passed before women had the right to vote, let alone sit in this place,” Johnson told MPs.
Poland, a traditional Catholic country, does not criminalise women for having an abortion, she said. In the United States, when the current president suggested women should be criminalised, he was forced to backtrack, she added.
Abortion is legal in England and Wales in restricted circumstances, which were laid down in the 1967 Abortion Act introduced by the then Liberal MP David Steel to stop women dying in large numbers as a result of backstreet abortions.
The 1967 legislation allows a termination before 12 weeks with the approval of two doctors and in the interests of the woman’s health. In rare circumstances, including foetal abnormality, later abortions are permitted.
The new bill will be brought forward by a cross-party group of MPs.
Johnson said in the debate that abolishing criminality need not change the current restrictions, which can be enshrined in regulations. The change in the law would not increase the number of late abortions. “It will not lead to a free for all,” she said.
The pills that bring about early abortion, before 12 weeks, are prescription only, so their use is governed by the Human Medicines Regulations 2012. It would not be any easier for couples to seek abortion for sex-selection purposes. And, she added, the current law did nothing about people who tried to coerce women into having a termination.
Johnson’s bill was strongly opposed by Maria Caulfield, Conservative MP for Lewes, who welcomed the opportunity of a brief debate on abortion, saying: “I and my colleagues will not be silenced as we seek to be the voices of the voiceless.”
Abortion is widely available under the law, she argued, and the wider availability of the abortion pills online “should motivate greater concern for women’s health and make us wary of greater liberalisation of the law”. Removing the criminal sanction “would embolden men to pressure women into abortions they do not wish to have”. Ensuring that the woman must have the consent of two doctors meant that she would have the chance to speak to somebody who could help her, Caulfield said.
She said the bill was being proposed “at a time when the UK abortion industry is knee-deep in allegations of unsafe and unethical practices”, citing alleged failures including the Care Quality Commission investigation into the Marie Stopes clinics.