Lawyers For Choice
Lawyers for Choice is a UK based organisation which believes that abortion should be regulated like any other medical procedure. We believe that women are in the best position to decide the outcomes of their pregnancies and can be trusted to make the decisions that are best for them in the light of their own moral and religious beliefs and their own personal situations. We are also committed to creating the conditions within which real reproductive choice may be exercised.
Today abortion is a simple and safe procedure, especially if performed within the first twelve weeks of a pregnancy (when over 9 out of 10 abortions take place). Complications are uncommon and there are many fewer risks involved than carrying a pregnancy to term. If specific criminal penalties relating to abortion were to be removed, this would not mean that abortion would be left unregulated. Rather, abortion would be treated in the same way as all other medical procedures. Dangerous and unsafe practice or non-consensual abortions would remain subject to appropriate criminal, civil and disciplinary sanction.
Removing specific criminal penalties relating to abortion would remove a clear anomaly in medical law. It would bring abortion law into line with the important general principle that patients must be allowed to make their own medical treatment decisions, with pregnant women no exception to this rule. We believe that this reform is a necessary part of ensuring women’s right to reproductive and sexual health.
Lawyers for Choice was set up in 2016 with the aims of:
• Campaigning for the removal of specific criminal prohibitions relating to abortion; for a change in the law to give women the right to make the abortion decision; and for the removal of clinically unnecessary restrictions on the provision of abortion services.
• Offering informed analysis of the current law (some of our members’ publications will be can be posted here; and our briefing papers will be posted here ).
• Providing a source of expert opinion and research that can inform a reform process.
If you are a lawyer or a law student and you share our beliefs, then please join us.
What is the current position in UK law ?
The Offences Against the Person Act 1861
Abortion is illegal in England, Wales and Northern Ireland by virtue of the Offences Against the Person Act (1861) and under the common law in Scotland. Under the 1861 Act:
• Abortion is illegal from very early in pregnancy (6-12 days after ovulation);
• Abortion is punishable by life imprisonment;
• Women, as well as abortion providers, can be prosecuted.
An additional statute, the Infant Life Preservation Act (1929) provides a separate, overlapping offence where an abortion takes place after viability. This applies in England and Wales, with similar statutory provision made in Northern Ireland. In Scotland, abortion offences are contained in the common law.
The Abortion Act 1967
The 1967 Act provides that no offence under the 1861 or 1929 Acts (or the common law in Scotland) will be committed where:
• Two doctors agree in good faith that continuing the pregnancy would be more dangerous to a woman’s physical or mental health, or the health of her existing children, than would continuing a pregnancy; or where there is a risk of a baby being born with a serious disability;
• The abortion is performed by a doctor; and
• The abortion is performed on NHS or other approved premises.
The Abortion Act applies in England, Wales and Scotland but not in Northern Ireland, which is sometimes said to have the most restrictive law in Europe.
Whats wrong with the present law ?
This 1861 Act was passed in the reign of Queen Victoria and is widely recognised to be archaic. It dates from a time long before women had won the right to vote and, indeed before all women were even legally permitted to own property in their own names. Its abortion provisions are an unacceptable anachronism, being significantly out of line both with popular moral opinion on abortion, and current legal principle. The 1861 Act provides the most onerous sanction for illegal abortion – life imprisonment – of any country in Europe. It ignores women’s rights to autonomy, bodily integrity, equality and reproductive health.
The restrictions imposed by the Abortion Act 1967 reflect the medical paternalism that was widely accepted in the 1960s and the fact that the abortion procedure was then more dangerous and technically demanding. Today, abortion is an extremely safe and technically straightforward procedure, which the WHO recommends can take place in the first trimester at primary care level managed by nurses and midwives, and the importance of respecting patient autonomy is widely accepted. Restrictions on access to abortion remain grounded in the moral codes and clinical realities of the 1960s, ignoring the significant developments that have taken place over the last five decades.
The position in Northern Ireland is particularly difficult. A Northern Irish woman who has decided to end an unwanted pregnancy, must either travel outside of the jurisdiction to do so or procure an illegal abortion within it. This means that while Northern Irish taxes contribute to funding NHS services for other women, Northern Irish women may have to find many hundreds of pounds to fund their travel, accommodation and the abortion procedure as this will not be funded by the NHS. This puts safe, legal abortion outside of the means of some Northern Irish women. Northern Irish abortion law has been repeatedly criticized as breaching human rights norms. It is also significantly out of line with popular opinion within the jurisdiction.
Lawyers for Choice is an independent, voluntary UK-based organisation. Our membership is made up of academic and practicing lawyers, others with a law degree or equivalent professional experience, and law students. Lawyers for Choice is coordinated by a steering committee, consisting of the following individuals:
Marie Fox is a Professor of Law at the University of Liverpool.
Ruth Fletcher is a senior lecturer in medical law at Queen Mary University London
Nick Beard is a PhD student at Sussex, where she is researching EU law on trafficking and domestic violence survivors. She volunteers for the Abortion Support Network.
Sheelagh McGuinness is a senior lecturer at the University of Bristol.
Jillian Merchant Solicitor, Glasgow.
Catherine O'Rourke is a senior lecturer in human rights and international law at the University of Ulster.
Laura Robinson is completing an LLB at Sheffield University.
Richard Stein is a partner at Leigh Day Solicitors, where he specialises in health and human rights issues.
Elizabeth Prochaska is a barrister specialising in human rights at Matrix Chambers.
Poppy Wilkinson is currently undertaking the LPC at Manchester.
Sally Sheldon is a Professor of Healthcare Law and Ethics, and a trustee of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.
Abortion Rights is a campaigning organisation formed by the merger of the National Abortion Campaign (NAC) and the Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA).
Birthrights is the UK’s only organisation dedicated to improving women’s experience of pregnancy and childbirth by promoting respect for human rights. It believes that all women are entitled to respectful maternity care that protects their fundamental rights to dignity, autonomy, privacy and equality.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service supports reproductive choice by advocating and providing high-quality, affordable services to prevent or end unwanted pregnancy with contraception or by abortion.
The Center for Reproductive Rights (USA) uses the law to advance reproductive freedom as a fundamental human right that all governments are legally obligated to protect, respect, and fulfill.
Doctors for Choice (Ireland) is an alliance of independent medical professionals and students advocating for comprehensive reproductive health services in Ireland, including the provision of safe and legal abortion for women who choose it. It is a feminist led organisation which believes in women’s moral agency and bodily integrity.
Doctors for a Woman’s Choice on Abortion aims: to make it clear to the public and to MPs that a large number of doctors would favour a change in the law to give women the right to make the abortion decision; to press for such a change in the law; to answer at a medical level the arguments of anti-abortionists.
The International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe Abortion is a network of advocates for safe abortion as a woman’s right in 110 countries, and has five associated regional networks and many international NGO members.
The Marie Stopes International Global Partnership provides sexual and reproductive health information and services across 38 countries, ensuring the fundamental human right of all people to have children by choice not chance
ProChoice Forum is an informal network of academics who believe in the importance of reproductive choice and seek to bring their thoughts and research to bear in a useful way for contemporary society.
Voice for Choice is a national coalition of organisations. It works alongside the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Choice and Sexual Health Group to campaign for a woman’s choice on abortion.
List of papers written by Lawyers For Choice members, with links to abstracts and open access versions where available
We gratefully acknowledge support from Birmingham Law School and Kent Law School.