Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
The deeply divisive issue of abortion has been back in the news after Alabama, a deeply conservative state in the Republican heartland of southern USA, passed a harsh and regressive law which aims to severely restrict access to services which offer termination of pregnancy.
The new law criminalises the procedure after 6 weeks of pregnancy, outlining that any doctor who performs an abortion after 6 weeks may be liable to a 99-year prison sentence. Alabama is the latest state to seek to restrict access to female sexual health services, following in the wake of Ohio which introduced the first “heartbeat bill”. Ohio’s bill outlawed abortion at 6 weeks when the first sign of a heartbeat from a foetus can be detected. This is extremely controversial and has been widely criticised by women’s rights activists, who claim it’s callous to outlaw abortion before most women even know they’re pregnant. Perhaps most controversially, there’s no exemption for women who have been raped, nor if there’s a risk of foetal abnormality or the mother’s life is in danger. Similar laws are in place in other states, with Missouri implementing controversial legislation similar to that in Alabama on 17th May.
To Europeans, this might seem confusing. In most European countries today, there’s a general consensus regarding abortion. It’s generally accepted, across both sides of the political spectrum, that legal abortion is beneficial for all, and it’s solely down to the woman who is pregnant to make the decision about what to do with her own body. This contrasts starkly with the United States, where abortion remains a contentious political issue which impacts elections. Most Americans would only vote for a candidate who shares their pro-life or pro-choice views.
Currently, US constitutional law allows abortion, as it comes under the right to privacy, and it must be available upon request in the first trimester of pregnancy. This follows the Supreme Court’s ruling in the landmark case ‘Roe vs Wade’. The Alabama law places an undue burden on women and restricts access in the first trimester, which is prohibited. It’s likely that a constitutional challenge will be raised against the state. However, this is what the legislators want to happen. It’s likely that any challenge will go to the Supreme Court. In recent years, the Supreme Court has increasingly been made up of judges who lean to more conservative views. Roe vs Wade, although absolutely correct in its outcome, was decided on shaky grounds. The decision was based on the right to privacy clause in the constitution which doesn’t explicitly state that the right to terminate a pregnancy exists. As such, if a case on the Alabama law were to appear in front of the judges, it’s not inconceivable that the resulting decision would overturn Roe vs Wade.
Make no mistake, that scenario is absolutely revolting. It would be the single biggest setback to women’s rights anywhere in my lifetime, and we’re right to criticise the barbaric law and the heartless and inhumane nature of the people who voted for it. But we must get our own house in order, first.
Britain’s abortion law is outdated, unfit for purpose, and must be changed to reflect the reality of contemporary society. Abortion was legalised for the first time in the UK following the 1967 Abortion Act, which provided provision for abortion on the NHS at 24 weeks of pregnancy or under, provided permission had been obtained from two doctors, for the following reasons:
- The risk to the physical or mental health of the mother or her existing children.
- To prevent injury or death of the mother.
- Risk of severe foetal abnormality.
- Economic reasons.
When first passed, this law was considered one of the most liberal abortion laws in the world. However, in the years since it’s become outdated. Britain doesn’t allow ‘abortion upon request’ for any time during the pregnancy. Although in practice there are few restrictions on women getting abortions in Britain and most British women seeking a termination don’t have trouble in obtaining one, there’s no guarantee that this cultural consensus will continue. The law desperately needs updating to reflect other countries’ legislation, and to enshrine in law that it’s the choice of only the mother to have an abortion regardless of her reasoning.
Then there’s Northern Ireland. The six counties, until it was placed at the core of the Brexit negotiations, have remained of low importance to successive governments since the other 26 became independent in 1921. Abortion remains no exception. The law regarding abortion in Northern Ireland is nothing short of draconian, inherently misogynistic and horrifically cruel. The 1967 Abortion Act doesn’t apply to Northern Ireland as it applies to Wales, Scotland and England. Abortion is almost completely illegal, and there are instances of women facing prosecution for attempting to seek abortions.
The political situation makes extending abortion to the deeply religious and conservative nation problematic. Abortion, as is much of social and health policy in Northern Ireland, a devolved issue. The Assembly at Stormont is responsible for abortion legislation, which is constantly blocked by the ruling Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). They have a staunchly anti-abortion stance, which reflects their reluctance in embracing other aspects of progressive social reform. For example, the DUP veto any legislation to allow same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. Gibraltar, a British Overseas Territory in the Mediterranean, has similarly restrictive laws.
It’s about time that this ends. Currently, Northern Ireland doesn’t have a ruling assembly, due to the nationalist and unionist communities being unable to come to a power-sharing agreement, as is constitutionally required. The ruling Conservative government have the power to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland should they desire. However, Theresa May, propped up by the DUP in Westminster, is too cowardly to put the basic human rights of thousands of women over her desire to cling to power.
What’s happening in Alabama is disgusting, but we must get our own house in order first.