Was the Health Secretary Matt Hancock gaslighting women in Britain when he allowed draft legislation permitting at-home abortions during the pandemic we’re currently living through to be published and unpublished? We will never know.
In the end, because of a cacophonous campaign from abortion experts at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) and Marie Stopes, the government did a u-turn and confirmed that, for as long as this crisis rages on, women will be able to take abortion medication in the safety and comfort of their own home after a telephone consultation with a doctor (also known as telemedicine).
However, if a policy doesn’t work during a crisis, the odds are that it wasn’t working for a lot of people before. No woman can be free if she doesn’t control her own body – that’s as true in a pandemic as it is at any other time.
If a policy doesn't work during a crisis, the odds are that it wasn't working for a lot of people before.
There’s a lot of talk about "when things return to normal" but what if 'normal' wasn’t good enough? The Department of Health has left us all in no uncertainty that these changes to abortion legislation are temporary and only to "stop the spread of coronavirus", not because they’re in women’s best interests. But here’s the thing, experts like BPAS, RCOG and Marie Stopes have long been calling for this change. Indeed, they think we need to go a lot further when it comes to reforming abortion laws in this country.
That’s why Refinery29 has joined them in campaigning for the decriminalisation of abortion once and for all over the last six months with our I’m A Criminal campaign.
At some point in their lives, before the age of 45, one in three women will have an abortion. Just like a pregnancy, the need to terminate one is a fact of life. More than this, being able to access safe, free and legal abortion services should you need to is acknowledged to be a basic human right for women and pregnant people.
The 1967 Abortion Act legalised abortion under certain conditions but it did not overturn what’s known as the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act, specifically sections 58 and 59, which mean that abortion is still – technically – a criminal offence.
The 1861 Act reads:
"Every woman, being with child, who, with intent to procure her own miscarriage, shall unlawfully administer to herself any poison... or unlawfully use any instrument... shall be liable ... to be kept in penal servitude for life."
No woman can be free if she doesn't control her own body – that's as true in a pandemic as it is at any other time.
The fact that the 1967 Act is underpinned by this law means that abortion is only lawful if two doctors agree that continuing with a pregnancy would affect a woman’s mental or physical health.
This puts a strain on services and can cause delays to waiting times. It is also why there are restrictions as to where abortions can happen, which is why the government had to specially approve the use of early abortion medication during this pandemic.
Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, long-awaited and much-needed abortion law reform which was meant to come into force on 1st April – having been voted on and passed through Westminster when Stormont was not sitting – was still pending. However, due to pressure from campaigners such as Alliance for Choice, officials promised they would provide telemedicine similar to that available in England and Wales to the women of Northern Ireland.
Naomi Connor, co-convener of Alliance for Choice told Refinery29 when telemedicine was confirmed in Northern Ireland that "healthcare professionals, campaigners and allies have demonstrated monumental commitment and strength over the past week in order to ensure that people can access the abortion healthcare they need even without the support of the full Executive."
But nobody should have to fight for basic rights, particularly not during a pandemic that has fundamentally changed the way we live overnight. Life pre-coronavirus already feels like another dimension. Rather than willing things to "return to normal" we should use this opportunity to look at what wasn’t working and how we can make things better in years to come. There’s a lot that’s uncertain now but what’s inevitable is that we will have future crises, future pandemics and future economic downturns. Women’s right to easily accessible abortion must be shored up once and for all.
Abortion is a medical and not a criminal issue, it’s time the legislation properly reflected that.