MPs make moves to decriminalise abortion in England and Wales

Criminal sanctions for abortion could be removed in England and Wales under new proposals to be tabled by MPs.

Labour backbenchers have outlined plans to move amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill in a bid to remove the threat of prosecution against women.

Ministers have faced calls to repeal sections of a 19th-century law in England and Wales after abortion was previously decriminalised in Northern Ireland.

In 2019, the UK Parliament backed moves to repeal sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA) 1861 in Northern Ireland – with questions raised about how Westminster would respond to equalise the law across the UK.

The 162-year-old law banning abortion was amended in 1967, legalising abortion with an authorised provider up to 28 weeks, which was later lowered to 24 weeks in 1991.

There are very limited circumstances that allow an abortion after 24 weeks, like when the mother’s life is at risk or the child would be born with a severe disability.

Speaking in the Commons, Labour former minister Dame Diana Johnson (pictured) said she will table a new clause to the Criminal Justice Bill to remove women from the criminal law relating to abortion.

Dame Diana, who chairs the Commons Home Affairs Committee, said: “This is a very limited and highly targeted amendment.

“It would not change any law regarding the provision of abortion services within a healthcare setting in England and Wales. The abortion time limit, the legal grounds for abortion and the requirement for two doctors’ approval would all stay as they are.

“What the amendment would do is usher in an end to women being put in jail for having an abortion.

“On that, in 2023, I hope we can all come together and agree on that course of action.”

Dame Diana earlier said: “The maximum penalty under section 58 is life imprisonment. Now between 1861 and November 2022 just three women were convicted of having an illegal abortion.

“But let’s not make any mistake about this – this is not a defunct piece of legislation quietly gathering dust on the shelf.

“Since December 2022, one woman has been convicted for a late termination and six women are awaiting trial. We also know that police officers have been investigated at least 52 women over the past eight years on the basis of suspicions that abortions have taken place after the legal limit.

“Abortion care providers also record a stark increase in information requests from police.”

Labour MP Stella Creasy said she would bring forward similar plans to decriminalise abortion, saying she hoped she could work alongside Dame Diana.

The Walthamstow MP said women in different parts of the UK currently experience a two-tier system because of the difference between abortion rights in Northern Ireland and England and Wales.

She said: “Why should the women of Birmingham, Bangor, Bradford, Bury, Broadstairs, Bournemouth and Barking not enjoy the same protection of buffer zones when the women of Belfast do?

“I say to colleagues: if you voted for this for Northern Ireland, ask yourself why you wouldn’t extend it to your own constituents.”

Ms Creasy told MPs her plans would not change existing time limits on abortion access, which generally cannot be carried out beyond 24 weeks of pregnancy except in limited circumstances.

She told the Commons: “Nothing in what I am proposing will change the time limits in the Abortion Act 1967. Indeed the amendment I am proposing explicitly enshrines those in future regulations.”

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