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Anti-choice activists capitalise on abortion jail tragedy

Voices across the political spectrum reacted with outrage to the sentencing of a mother-of-three to 28 months in prison for taking an abortion pill later than the legal timeline. But the far Right is mobilising to toughen up the laws further still. 

June 16 2023, 15.17pm

Anti-abortion campaigners and politicians are seeking to take advantage of renewed attention to Britain’s abortion laws, after a 44-year-old mother of three was sentenced 28 months in prison after she obtained drugs to terminate her pregnancy outside the upper time limit.

Speaking in the House of Commons on Thursday, anti-abortion MPs from the Conservative Party and Democratic Unionist Party sought to reopen debate about the upper-time limit for abortion, foetal viability, and the provision of abortion medication through telemedicine.

During an urgent question on Abortion: The Offences Against the Person Act, several right-wing male MPs used the debate to call for a roll back of abortion rights. 

The Conservative Sir Robert Goodwill asked for a government debate and free vote on the existing abortion framework, “given advances in care for babies born prematurely”. There have been repeated attempts to decrease the upper-time-limit based on arguments of foetal viability, and in 2008 all but one of the Conservative front-bench voted in favour of a motion by Nadine Dorries to lower the time limit to 20 weeks. 

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Goodwill was joined by Sir Edward Leigh, Patron of the anti-abortion Values Foundation, who echoed the remarks about foetal viability and the upper-time-limit, and called for an end to telemedicine – a point further repeated by Sir Desmond Swayne. 

The Conservative MP for Cleethorpes Martin Vickers expressed his distress “that so little concern is expressed for the welfare of the unborn child”, before calling for a review in regulations of abortion providers.

Increasing regulation on abortion providers is a tactic that saw much success in the US, which introduced laws designed to make it harder and more costly for providers to operate. Leigh also referred to the “abortion industry” – a term commonly deployed by the US anti-abortion movement due in part to the fact that abortion is not freely available. 

Meanwhile, the DUP’s Jim Shannon argued that the current law provides “vital protection” for “the most vulnerable person of all: the unborn child”. He then asked the Minister to commit to “protecting the sanctity of life” by lowering the upper-time limit to 14-weeks.

“White genocide” 

Outside of Parliament, and anti-abortion campaigners are following Leigh’s and Swayne’s lead in seeking to stop women accessing abortion pills via telemedicine. The change was brought in during the pandemic to relieve pressure on the NHS and made permanent last year.

Christian Concern, which lobbied against the policy, said in a statement that “we warned over and over about the dangerous pills by post abortion policies and how easy it would be to procure pills illegally [...] The government should urgently turn back the clock and end this disastrous policy of cheap, convenient, pills by post abortions”. 

Telemedicine means that more abortions can be done earlier in pregnancy, and provides dignity for women by allowing them to take pills in the privacy of their own homes. Women’s rights campaigners have spoken of how the policy helps vulnerable and marginalised women, including those in abusive relationships who may otherwise struggle to access abortion care.

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Christian Concern is a co-founder of Parent Power, an anti-sex education group, with the UK’s oldest anti-abortion charity, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC). The latter led its reaction on foetal viability and echoed some of the political comments by targeting abortion providers.

As well as the more mainstream anti-abortion activists, far-right influencers have also sought to weaponise this week’s sentencing to advance its anti-abortion ideology. 

Mark Collett, founder of Patriotic Alternative, wrote on his Telegram that “the more you look into abortion the more chilling it becomes [...] it is really important that nationalist women and in particular nationalist mothers take the lead on this and reach out to other women in order to help end this madness”. This reflects his group’s conspiracist and baseless belief that a so-called ‘white genocide’ is being fuelled by feminism and abortion rights. 

Calling abortion “murder”, Patriotic Alternative’s Laura Trowler wrote “if you ever need a sign that evil walks among us, this is it”. The far-right Telegram channel Tommy Robinson News also posted about the case, suggesting the British far-right is increasingly seeing abortion as a new front in its culture wars in the UK, as it has in the US.

Wrong momentum 

These attacks by the Right may be ugly, but they are simply not working. 

The momentum is towards decriminalisation, with BPAS joining more than 30 leading women’s rights organisations like the Royal College of Obstetrician and Gynaecologists, The Royal College of Midwives, The Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Health, Rape Crisis England & Wales to create a position statement calling on the government to reform the Abortion Act 1967 to decriminalise women seeking to end their own pregnancies.

Now BPAS is taking its Time to Act campaign to the streets, with a march in London on Saturday at the Royal Courts of Justice, under the banner “Abortion should not be a crime”.

Explaining the motivation behind the event,  Rachael Clarke, Chief of Staff at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), told The Lead that “it’s such a clearly outrageous sentence and an outrageous decision to prosecute this place and we wanted to give the public a chance to express how they feel about this happening in 2023”.

And if anti-abortion MPs made their views heard in Thursday’s urgent question, pro-abortion lawmakers did too. 

Labour’s Diana Johnson tabled the question, arguing that the case “throws a spotlight on our antiquated abortion laws” and that “Government and Parliament must look at this outdated legislation and make it fit for the 21st century”. Johnson has previously tabled amendments seeking to decriminalise abortion.

Johnson’s Labour colleague Chi Onwurah spoke out about how “Parliament has a duty to ensure that there is a consistent, humane and modern legislative framework that supports women’s wellbeing,” while Shadow Leader of the House Thangam Debbonaire stated that “we should not have vulnerable women sent to prison like this”. 

Debbonaire also spoke about public interest prosecutions, in which she was joined by the SNP’s Alison Thewliss who quoted The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists as saying “that prosecuting a woman for ending their pregnancy will never be in the public interest”.

And Justice Minister Edward Argar told Parliament on Thursday that abortion laws in England and Wales have been “settled”, signalling that while the government has no interest in the much-needed abortion reform, it wasn't planning on further restricting access, either. 

Clarke, meanwhile, did not appear impressed with the renewed far-right assault on abortion rights.  “In the past few years we have seen two of the biggest improvements to abortion access in 50 years, with the introduction of telemedicine, and buffer zones around abortion clinics,” Clarke told The Lead. “This is a cynical attempt by some MPs to rehash the arguments they comprehensively lost last year”.

Take Action 

  • Sign our petition for Abortion Reform Now. 
  • Join today's march for abortion rights, led by BPAS - starting at the Royal Courts of Justice at 1pm. 
  • Use BPAS's handy tool to write to your MP and get them to support sane abortion laws. 


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