Forty years after the introduction of the English Abortion Act, activists are taking stock and asking how this legislation – last amended in 1990 – could be improved. This is an important agenda in the UK as a new Human Tissue And Embryo Bill is being considered which may well include amendments to current abortion law.
Dilys Cossey, who was a member of the NGO coalition that lobbied for the original 1967 legislation, explains the context at that time. "We had an enormous amount of informed discussion thanks to the on-going social reform agenda at that time. It is interesting and encouraging that the 1967 Act has stood the test of time," she says. "None the less, we need to continue the debate and lobbying to make sure it is relevant to today's needs and expectations."
Ann Furedi, Chief Executive of BPAS, agrees the law has held up well, but with some qualifications. Furedi would like to review the current provision that two doctors' consent is required to allow a woman to have an abortion; entertain the possibility that qualified nurses should be allowed to perform certain abortion procedures; and bring Northern Irish abortion legislation and practice in line with the rest of the UK.
Speaking last week at a BPAS open meeting on the current legislation, attorney Barbara Hewson argued that any law should be as cost effective and efficient as possible, and also that other important medical procedures only required the consent of one doctor – two arguments against the existing requirement for two doctors' consent. Hewson agreed that there is need for more discussion as to whether or not nurses could provide abortions, especially within the context of new abortion procedures. And on Northern Ireland, Hewson said however politically sensitive it may be, there is a strong argument for the sake of uniformity for the Northern Irish law to be amended.
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Other discussion at the meeting focussed on ethics committees of Primary Care Trusts effectively taking the law into their own hands by making arbitrary decisions about women's access to late abortion – partly thanks to pressure and legal test casing by pro-life groups, and the need for clear fact-based proposals to Parliament and civil servants, rather than opinionated demands.
The law currently provides a framework for access to abortion in the UK. It does not empower nurses and other qualified medical professionals other than doctors to increase access to safe and legal abortion. Nor does it provide for the needs of women in Northern Ireland. This fortieth anniversary provides an opportunity for reflection, and also an arena for positive change.