Great Britain

Labour manifesto: Corbyn vows to rip up Victorian-era abortion laws

Labour has vowed to rip up Victorian abortion laws by overhauling historic legislation which contains criminal sanctions for women and doctors.

The party's manifesto, launched by Jeremy Corbyn on Thursday, contains a pledge to "uphold women’s reproductive rights and decriminalise abortions" if Labour scores a dramatic victory in next month's election.

Under the 1967 Abortion Act, women can legally seek a termination up to 24 weeks of pregnancy and each procedure must be signed off by two doctors.

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However, the previous 19th Century law was never repealed when the Act was brought in, which means it remains a criminal offence to breach these conditions in England and Wales.

These strict regulations mean those who buy illegal abortion pills online, often out of fear of seeking help at a clinic, could face a life sentence in prison. Doctors who fail to comply with the regulations also face criminal sanctions.

Labour's pledge would bring England and Wales in line with Northern Ireland, which has the most liberal abortion laws in the UK since MPs repealed the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act in the country last month.

Northern Ireland was always exempt from the 1967 Act, creating a strange scenario where the country transformed overnight from the most restrictive part of the UK on abortion rights to the most liberal.

Labour's Stella Creasy told The Independent: "By decriminalising abortion we finally will treat women as capable, breathing citizens.

"Right now, if you’re a woman, you can’t actually choose to have an abortion in England and Wales – somebody else makes that choice for you in the shape of two doctors who have to decide that if you ask for one and didn't get one you would be harmed either mentally or physically.

"Without their agreement a woman risks prosecution for making her own choices about her own body at any age.

"Decriminalisation means that women would have the same equal rights over their bodies that men have because if you take away the criminal element of the law you can have a fully medical procedure where their consent matters and where medical need- not the threat of prosecution- can be upheld."

Former shadow health minister Diana Johnson tried to change the law in the last parliament but her attempt to place regulation with professional bodies, rather than the police, were unsuccessful.

"I know from the two votes on decriminalisation that I brought to parliament, there is a majority who see this as a healthcare matter between a woman and her doctor and not a matter for the criminal law," the Labour candidate told The Independent.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), which provides advice on terminations, hailed the move to change a law that was "decades – centuries – out of date".

A BPAS spokesperson said: "The current criminalisation of abortion in Britain fails women.

"No woman should be threatened with prosecution for ending her own pregnancy, and yet today in the 21st Century any woman who does so without the permission of two doctors can go to prison for life.

"Our archaic legal framework creates unnecessary barriers to care too, meaning some vulnerable women are prevented from accessing the treatment they need - leaving them no option but to continue an unwanted pregnancy that risks their health."

The Liberal Democrats have committed to decriminalise abortion across the UK while retaining the existing 24-week limit and legislating for access to abortion facilities within Northern Ireland.

The Greens also pledged to "extend the EU’s charter of fundamental rights to give women in all EU countries access to legal, safe and affordable abortion services".

Any move to change abortion law is unlikely to be included in the Conservative party manifesto, which is expected on Sunday.

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