Article by Harriet Minter
Murphy explained that the June ruling by the Supreme Court didn’t make abortion illegal in the US but sent back the question of whether it should be legal or not to the individual states to decide for themselves. A number of those states had laws waiting to be enacted which would impose a restriction or ban on abortion making it at best difficult and at worst impossible for people living in those states to access safe abortion services.
Because of the creation of abortion pills, which allow access medical abortion services through the post, women and pregnant people in those states will still be able to access some abortion services but this won’t help the majority of people facing an unwanted pregnancy. The majority of women in UK who are more than ten weeks pregnant will opt for a surgical abortion, Murphy said, and the same is true in the US. This means women will have to cross state lines – and sometimes cross several states – in order to access a safe abortion. President Biden has announced that there will be funding for women who need to travel, although the details of this are still not clear.
What does this mean for women in the UK? On the whole Murphy felt that abortion in the UK was in a more secure place than it had been in the US prior to the overturning of Roe v Wade. She explained how the campaign against abortion rights in the US had been an ongoing, strategic campaign for many years which had flourished under Donald Trump’s changes to the judges serving on the Supreme Court. However, she warned against complacency when it comes to abortion rights here in the UK.
She explained that while the NHS funds the majority of abortion services in the UK, the service itself is actually provided by organisations outside the NHS such as BPAS or MSI Reproductive Services. BPAS not only provides the service but also campaigns for progressive reform of the UK abortion laws and offers education on why it’s a service that women will always need. She added that in the UK abortion services are seen as a part of a wider discussion around women’s rights and wellbeing which includes medical professionals, rape crisis and domestic abuse services and charities, as well as pro-choice campaigners.
However, this doesn’t mean that the UK is without problems when it comes to access to abortions. Murphy talked about smaller challenges which had been brought against the right to abortion law in recent years, which she sees as a way of chipping away at it – including a challenge to the rights of abortion providers to offer counselling to those seeking an abortion.
She also reminded those listening that the UK hasn’t decriminalised abortion, merely that it had allowed abortion up to 24 weeks when approved by two doctors on the basis that continuing the pregnancy would cause harm to a woman’s mental or physical health. This means that there are currently two women facing a life sentence for procuring abortion pills to terminate a pregnancy after 24 weeks.
The sooner we can see abortion decriminalised the better. The 1861 offences against the person act which criminalises women for making decisions about their own bodies, often in very difficult circumstances, simply has no place in the 21st century.
She praised companies who included abortion in their pregnancy loss policies and who actively encouraged conversations about women’s health and wellbeing in the office. Events which address issues such as menopause, periods or mental health are key in breaking down the barriers surrounding these topics.
Clare Murphy is Chief Executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, BPAS, a charity which delivers reproductive healthcare services to around 100,000 women each year across the UK and campaigns for the legal and policy frameworks needed to deliver reproductive choice. Clare was appointed CEO after a decade running the charity’s advocacy, communications and education programmes. Prior to joining BPAS Clare was a health journalist at the BBC.