• April 20, 2024
 Health Secretary could back decriminalisation of abortion, says The Telegraph

Health Secretary could back decriminalisation of abortion, says The Telegraph

The Health Secretary, Victoria Atkins says her “record speaks for itself” as MPs begin preparations for the first major vote in over 30 years which would change the law by backing the decriminalisation of abortion.

Victoria Atkins, Health Secretary was speaking in an interview with The Telegraph. On discussing her voting record to date, you can see that she has previously supported the decriminalisation or abortion, and backed buffer zones for abortion clinics.

Why is this being discussed new? Well it comes as next month MPs will vote on two amendments that would change the law on abortion. The first would decriminalise abortion after 24 weeks and the other would lower the legal time limit from 24 weeks to 22 weeks.

Labour chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, Diana Johnson, has tabled an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill that would mean women would no longer be prosecuted if they ended their pregnancies beyond the 24-week legal time limit. “It has so far gathered cross-party support from 20 MPs”, says The Telegraph.

The second amendment, which has been tabled by Conservative MP Caroline Ansell, would represent the first lowering of the time limit since 1990, when MPs backed reducing it from 28 weeks to 24 weeks. Her proposal is supported by a cross-party group of 25 MPs.

On Friday night, Downing Street indicated that MPs would be free to vote according to their consciences with a source at No 10 saying to the The Telegraph:

“Abortion has always been a free vote for MPs.”

Ms Atkins stated in her interview with The Telegraph:

“I’m very conscious as Health Secretary that whatever the House decides if there is a vote, my department will be the one to either maintain the status quo or to deliver change.

And so at this stage, I’m not going to say anything publicly because I just want to see how the debate develops. But my voting record speaks for itself.”

In 2018, whilst junior minister for women, Ms Atkins voted in favour of decriminalisation of abortion.

The MPs backing reducing the time limit to 22 weeks say the current 24-week abortion time limit is based on an outdated understanding of the viability of premature babies. 22 weeks is now recognised by the British Association of Perinatal Medicine as the point of viability outside of the womb and the point at which doctors are enabled to intervene to save premature babies.

Britain’s 24-week limit is in direct contrast with most European countries where abortion is only legal on demand or social grounds but still up to 12 weeks of gestation.

Ms Ansell commented:

“The increase in survival rates for babies born at 22 and 23 weeks gestation is one of the great success stories of medical progress in recent years. More and more babies born at these ages are able to survive thanks to the hard work of neonatal teams.

As in 1990, when our laws were last changed to reflect similar increases in survival rates, it is time our abortion time limit was updated. Our current time limit is an outlier compared with our European neighbours and my hope is this amendment will command widespread support across the House.”

Professor John Wyatt,  emiritus professor of Neonatal Paediatrics at UCL, said to The Telegraph:

“I have first hand experience that on the one hand we are able to keep babies alive from 22 to 23 weeks gestation and many of them survive and live normal and healthy lives, yet at the same time the current abortion act allows abortion to be carried out effectively at maternal request at 24 weeks gestation,”

Speaking about the amendment that would decriminalise abortion, Ms Johnson said:

“It is quite a limited amendment. It is just taking women out of the criminal justice system. One of the reasons I am really concerned about this is that there are a number of women being investigated because their pregnancies ended later on after something terrible has gone wrong.”

Here in England and Wales, abortion is still a criminal offence under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, with a maximum sentence of life in jail. However, the 1967 Abortion Act has provided exemptions to the 1861 act by allowing abortions in certain circumstances (only with the authorisation of two doctors and before 24 weeks of pregnancy except in exceptional situations). The Telegraph went on to report that just last year a mother of three was sent to prison for having an illegal abortion and approximately 100 women have faced police investigations since 2019.

Under the amendment, the 1861 law would no longer apply to women ending their own pregnancies although they would still have to abide by the requirements of the 1967 abortion act including the 24-week limit.

It would bring England and Wales into line with Northern Ireland, where abortions were decriminalised in 2019. It is backed by the Colleges of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, of GPs and of Midwives and the British Medical Association. A YouGov poll showed 55 per cent of MPs also supported the change.

2008 was the last time there was an attempt to cut the time limit on abortion and was led by former Cabinet minister Nadine Dorries,  this amendment was looking to lower it to 20 weeks. During the vote it was defeated by 332 to 190 votes with most of Gordon Brown’s Cabinet voting for the against. A proposal of 22 weeks was also debated at the same time and this was also defeated by a narrow margin of 304 to 233 votes.

Catherine Robinson, of Right To Life UK, said:

“At the moment, a baby at 22 or 23 weeks gestation could be born prematurely and have a dedicated medical team provide expert care to try to save his or her life, while another baby at the same age could have their life deliberately ended by abortion in the same hospital at the same time. This is a contradiction in UK law.

Polling demonstrates widespread public support for a time limit reduction, with support for this reduction strongest among women”.

Remote appointments for early medical abortions were introduced as a temporary measure at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. In February 2022, Sajid Javid, then health secretary, made the announcement that the “pills by post” system would be dismantled in England. However, an amendment was called asking for the system to remain, and was won. Although a free vote was held, the Government made it clear that it wanted the system abolished.

Ms Atkins was among MPs who defied government attempts to bring an end to the “pills by post” home abortions.

First published on Today’s Family Lawyer on 26th February 2024

Rebecca Morgan, Editor

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