Harriet Harman

Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. Mother of the House of Commons.

Supporting Diana Johnson's Bill to decriminalise abortion


It is right that abortion is regulated, but this is not a matter for the criminal justice system. I co-sponsored the Bill put forward by Diana Johnson MP to decriminalise abortion and am pleased that today MPs voted by 172 votes to 142 in favour of it passing to Second Reading. The Bill is backed by a range of women's rights groups, reproductive rights campaigners and professional bodies, including:

  • Royal College of Midwives

  • Women’s Aid

  • Fawcett Society

  • Maternity Action

  • the British Society of Abortion Care Providers

  • Birthrights

  • Lawyers for Choice

  • End Violence Against Women

  • Equality Now

  • IPPF European Network

  • Voice for Choice

  • Southall Black Sisters

  • Alliance for Choice NI

  • Doctors for a Woman’s Choice on Abortion.

The Current Law on Abortion 

Since the 1967 Abortion Act, women have been able to access legal abortions under a limited range of conditions, provided that two doctors’ confirm that the conditions are met and the woman attends a registered abortion clinic. The conditions for obtaining an abortion up to 24 weeks and beyond 24 weeks are set out below:

  • Up to 24 weeks, women can obtain an abortion on the basis that “the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family.” 

  • Beyond 24 weeks, women can only obtain an abortion if they satisfy one of three conditions: that the termination is necessary to prevent “grave permanent injury” to the woman’s physical or mental health; that it would pose a “risk to the life of the pregnant woman, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated”; or that there is a “substantial risk” that the child would be born “seriously handicapped.”

However, abortion remains a criminal act – both for the woman who has an abortion and anyone who helps her to have an abortion – under Sections 58-59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, and other legislation, unless explicitly exempted by the provisions of the 1967 Act. The law states that any woman who procures her own miscarriage could be punished by up to life imprisonment – the harshest criminal penalty of any country in Europe.

I share Diana Johnson MP’s concerns about the impact of the law on vulnerable women who may be in a time of intense private trauma.  For example, women in domestic abuse situations, who may be too scared or unable to visit a clinic, are breaking the law if they procure their own miscarriage.

The Proposal to Decriminalise

This Bill does not propose to do away with existing safeguards. Following decriminalisation, abortion would continue to be subject to a significant body of Parliamentary regulation and robust professional standards, which would ensure that services are safe and operate to appropriate ethical standards. This is a much better way to ensure that women are able to access safe abortion services rather than using the criminal law against women and doctors.

There are examples of a range of countries that have already decriminalised abortion, e.g. Canada and there is no evidence that this has led to a rise in late-term abortions. The same is the case in the United States ever since a Supreme Court judgement in 1973. When Trump suggested that women should be punished for having an abortion last year, he backtracked on his claims after criticism from fellow Republicans and even anti-abortion campaign groups.

Maintaining Necessary Safeguards

  • This Bill will not remove the current 24-week time limit. With decriminalisation, women will only be able to obtain abortions beyond 24 weeks’ under the same circumstances as now. Professional bodies will have responsibility for enforcing these rules. 

  • As now, only properly-trained health professionals, operating to high standards of clinical safety, would be legally able to carry out abortions. Their conduct should be underpinned by a robust code set by their professional bodies, and any cases of malpractice, as now, would be dealt with by these bodies.  

  • On top of these disciplinary rules, there are already a range of laws that protect women from unscrupulous practitioners – from Acts prohibiting unlicensed doctors from operating, to legislation criminalising the selling of prescription-only drugs without a prescription. 

  • The current law is clear that no woman can have an abortion on the grounds of the gender of the child. With decriminalisation, professional bodies will continue to prohibit this as a grounds for an abortion.

I will continue to back the Bill and monitor its progress through Parliament. The Second Reading is expected on 24 March 2017.

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