In UK, abortion is still punishable by life in prison. When will we finally change the law? – Susan Dalgety
It is 20 years since 9/11 and once again family members will gather at the National September 11 Memorial in New York and read out the names of the thousands killed on that terrible day. The country will be united in its grief, for a day at least.
But there is one issue, perhaps more than any other, that reveals the deep schism at the heart of American society – a woman’s right to choose. Nearly 50 years after the historic Supreme Court ruling, known as Roe vs Wade, which effectively legalised abortion, the country is still fighting over the issue.
It’s a major dividing line at every election, from state to presidential, and it now looks set to become one of the defining battles of Joe Biden’s administration.
Last month, Texas banned abortion from six weeks after conception and made provisions to allow citizens to sue anyone who helped a woman get an illegal termination.
On Thursday, the Justice Department announced it was suing the Texas state legislature. Attorney General Merrick Garland said the new law was “clearly unconstitutional” and one that “all Americans, whatever their politics or party, should fear”.
And Vice-President Kamala Harris spoke for women across America – and around the world – when she said: “The right of women to make decisions about their own bodies is not negotiable. The right of women to make decisions about their own bodies is their decision, it is their body.”
But not according to the governor of Texas, Greg Abbot, a Republican whose spokesperson responded to the Justice Department lawsuit with a phrase that will have resonance for millions of Americans. “The most precious freedom is life itself,” said the governor's press secretary, Renae Eze. “Texas passed a law that ensures that the life of every child with a heartbeat will be spared from the ravages of abortion,” she added.
Why does abortion still divide America, nearly two generations after it was deemed legal? The simple answer is religion.
A major study by the Pew Research Centre shows that roughly half of Americans (48 per cent) believe having an abortion is morally wrong. Around three-quarters of white evangelical Protestants (77 per cent) – Donald Trump’s base – say abortion should be illegal.
Catholics, traditionally strong opponents of abortion, are split with 55 per cent in favour, and 43 per cent saying it should be illegal. But Americans with no religious affiliation overwhelmingly support legal abortion: 82 per cent say it should be legal in all or most cases.
America was colonised by white evangelical Protestants. They are the oldest religious group in the country, and about one quarter of Americans still identify as such. Half live in the southern states, with most of the rest in the mid-west and west. Only nine per cent of evangelical Protestants live in the north-east of the country.
Kamala Harris may speak for progressive, urban America, but Donald Trump and Greg Abbot understand their base, and it is against abortion.
It is hard to imagine Britain tearing itself apart over a woman’s right to choose. Abortion was permitted here – with certain conditions – seven years before America, when a young Liberal MP from the Scottish Borders, David Steel, successfully introduced a private members bill in 1967.
But while the right to an abortion is largely considered the settled will of British society, campaigners say there is still much that could be done to modernise the law, and make the process – always a difficult one, at least emotionally – easier for women.
The national pro-choice campaign group, Abortion Rights Scotland, say that one-in-three women will have had an abortion by the time they are 45. There are three main areas where it would like to see change: equal access for all, which includes the continuation of medical abortions at home, introduced at the start of the pandemic; an end to the harassment of women with the buffer zones outside hospitals and sexual health clinics – and the decriminalisation of abortion.
Unbelievably, the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which criminalised terminations, is still on the statute book at Westminster, as are equivalent common law offences in Scotland. Section 58 of the Act reads: “Every woman, being with child, who, with intent to procure her own miscarriage, shall unlawfully administer to herself any poison or unlawfully use any instrument shall be liable to be kept in penal servitude for life.”
Technically any woman who terminates a pregnancy risks life imprisonment – not in downtown Dallas or Galveston, but in Edinburgh or Perth. According to the coalition We Trust Women, no other medical procedure risks such prosecution.
“The criminalisation of abortion makes a mockery of the equal status that is accorded to women in any other area of life,” reads a statement on its website. “[It] represents discrimination against women and stigmatises the one in three women who will have an abortion. This harms women.”
Next month, on October 2, Abortion Rights Scotland will join a day of action in solidarity with the women of Texas. But here in Scotland, women also risk prosecution if they choose to terminate a pregnancy, the victims of a law introduced long before women had the right to vote.
The Scottish government’s new Women’s Health Plan, published last month, contains broad goals to improve abortion rights, but is silent on the decriminalisation of abortion. Surely it’s time that our parliament dragged women’s health out of the Victorian era and into the 21st century. After all, this is not America.
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