Anti-choice groups have expressed delight at the introduction of three new Bills in the House of Lords that would potentially restrict women’s ability to have legal abortions in the United Kingdom.
The Bills’ titles, which include ‘Foetal Sentience’, ‘Gestational Time Limit Reduction’, and ‘Early Medical Home Abortion (Review)’, all give clear indications that they are targeting existing legal rights which women depend on in England and Wales.
Context: Religious assault on reproductive rights
While the Bills have not yet been published for full scrutiny, these introductions have not emerged in a vacuum. Recent months have seen an intensification of anti-abortion protests outside clinics across Scotland, England, and Wales.
Humanists UK has urged the Home Secretary to enact legislation passed by Parliament in March 2023 that would give greater protection to women who face targeted abuse and harassment from anti-abortion protesters by creating Safe Access Zones outside abortion clinics in England and Wales. Humanist Society Scotland has been backing a Bill to the same effect in Scotland.
In 2022, Humanists UK broke the story that the UK Government, just weeks after the shocking demise of Roe v Wade in the United States, unilaterally removed women’s reproductive and sexual health rights from a multinational human rights statement signed by 22 countries. Reports at the time suggested this would have needed ministerial sign-off. The UK Government has since been slow to act on abortion rights generally. Twice it has fallen to majorities in Parliament to overrule ministers: first to keep telemedical home abortion provisions introduced during the pandemic, and then again to pass legislation on Safe Access Zones.
Women facing prosecution
There are also worrying signs that the police are increasingly using outdated 1861 Victorian criminal laws on abortion, still in effect in Great Britain, to investigate women who have had miscarriages or who are suspected of having terminations outside the narrow framework of the 1967 Abortion Act.
In the last 12 months alone, seven women have faced prosecution and trial under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. This is an unprecedented increase, which compares to just three convictions between 1862 and 2022.
Humanists UK is campaigning to move abortion regulations from the criminal code into civil law, which would replace distressing police investigations for women with targeted support from health and social care experts. This could be achieved by repealing sections 58 and 59 from the Offences Against the Person Act, which would finally bring abortion law in England, Scotland, and Wales in line with that of Northern Ireland, Canada, and most of Europe.
What is Humanists UK doing?
Humanists UK has reacted to the new wave of anti-abortion manoeuvres in Parliament by briefing the 115+ members of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG). It will continue to monitor all political developments relating to women’s freedom of choice and keep the parliamentary group in Westminster fully informed of any developments.
It will also be supporting parliamentary efforts from MPs and peers to decriminalise abortion, as it did successfully for Northern Ireland in 2019.
It is collecting signatures to urge the Home Secretary to lay the Safe Access Zones order as voted for by Parliament. Northern Ireland has already instituted such zones, ahead of the rest of the UK.
Humanists UK works working closely with abortion support organisations such as BPAS, which founded the ‘Back Off’ coalition calling for Safe Access Zones, and the Voice for Choice coalition, which brings together a wide range of organisations concerned with the protection of women’s sexual and reproductive health rights.
Humanists UK Public Affairs and Policy Manager Karen Wright said:
‘In a post Roe v Wade world, the anti-choice lobby has become emboldened, and longstanding abortion rights cannot be taken for granted. It’s important for everyone to know that there are people in Parliament who want to enact legislation that would erode hard-won reproductive rights.
‘Humanists fought for reproductive rights and freedoms in this country and we will always fight to defend them.’
For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Kathy Riddick at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 07534 248 596.
Read more about our work on abortion.
Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 120,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.