LONDON — The U.K.’s professional association for doctors has backed a motion calling for the decriminalization of abortion for the first time ever.
Two-thirds of the 500 delegates attending the British Medical Association (BMA) Annual Representative Meeting (ARM) in Bournemouth, England, at the end of June voted for the motion, which calls for all criminal sanctions to be removed in relation to abortionists and mothers seeking an abortion.
Prior to the vote, around 1,500 doctors and student doctors signed an open letter calling on delegates to reject the motion.
Dr. John Chisholm, the BMA medical ethics committee chairman, told the media after the vote: “Abortion is currently a crime, with exceptions, throughout the U.K. Following the debate, the majority of doctors were clear that abortion should be treated as a medical issue rather than a criminal one.
“What must be clear is that decriminalization does not mean deregulation. The debate today and the BMA’s new policy only relate to whether abortion should or should not be a criminal offense; the policy does not address the broader issue of when and how abortion should be available. The BMA has established policy on these issues, which remains unchanged.”
But historic precedent suggests that the implications could have serious legal consequences.
John Keown, a professor at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University, has researched and written extensively on the U.K.’s history of abortion law.
He told the Register that “the medical profession played an important role both in the restriction of the abortion law in the 19th century and in the relaxation of the law by the Abortion Act 1967. This reflects the profession’s key influence on the law and politics of matters medico-legal.”
Abortion Providers Applaud
The BMA decision was welcomed by major abortion organizations in the U.K.
“No other form of health care requires legal authorization from two doctors before it can be performed. Decriminalization would mean we could improve care practically for women, and it would also send a message that in 2017 we think women should be able to make their own decisions about their own pregnancies,” said a spokesman for British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), one of the three major abortion organizations in the U.K., performing around 70,000 abortions each year.
“It would also ensure that any woman who uses abortion medication without the authorization of two doctors would no longer face the threat of life in prison, as is the case today.”
Meanwhile, a spokesman for Marie Stopes International (MSI), another leading U.K. abortion provider, told the Register: “We do not believe it is helpful for anyone involved in an abortion to be criminalized, so long as the appropriate regulations are in place. The safety of women accessing abortion is paramount.”
However, several leading pro-life doctors have criticized the BMA decision. Dr. Peter Saunders, the CEO of Christian Medical Fellowship, said that delegates had been misled about the effects of the motion.
Saunders, whose organization has 4,000 doctors and 1,000 medical student members, argues that most doctors will not understand the legal complexities of which they voted.
“They voted to decriminalize — and we know that the We Trust Women campaign [a radically pro-abortion coalition lead by BPAS] and Parliament will interpret this as repealing Section 58 and 59 of the Offense Against the Person Act.
“That will render the Abortion Act null and void with its 24-week limit, which means that the fallback statutory position will be the Infant Life Preservation Act (ILPA), which defines viability as 28 weeks.”
“But the Labour Party’s Diana Johnson MP has implied she would get rid of the ILPA too, which would make it up to birth,” he said, commenting on Johnson’s political efforts to decriminalize abortion in Parliament with her Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) Bill, which members of Parliament voted to support in March.
Added Saunders, “The chairman of the BMA ethics committee misled the Annual Representatives Meeting by saying it was 24 weeks. Apparently the chairman later apologized, but after the vote had been taken.”
The U.K.’s Abortion Act allows abortion until the 24th week of pregnancy, but also allows abortion up to birth on other grounds.
‘Betrayed Its Own Ethics’
Saunders said that members who attend the annual representative meeting tend to be more politically active and socially liberal. “But the bottom line is that most doctors have a gradualist view of human status before birth and believe that the woman’s autonomy should trump any interest of the baby,” he said.
“The BMA has betrayed its own ethics. The BMA called abortion ‘the greatest crime’ in 1947, and the Hippocratic Oath forbids abortion,” he said. “Now the BMA is saying it should not be a crime at all. But best to stay in and try to turn it round, rather than let these extremist hijack it. I don’t think that those who attend the ARM are really representative of most doctors.”
His view is shared by Dr. John Campbell, professor of general practice and primary care at the University of Exeter, who made headlines in the British press ahead of the vote with a strongly worded condemnation of the proposal.
Campbell told the Register, “The conference is attended by 500 ‘representatives’ from across the U.K. However, it seems clear that these individuals are not speaking for the general population of doctors or representing the views of many doctors or medical students in the U.K.”
“And behind these individuals is a strong social movement, led by voices such as that of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service,” he added, “who are advocating the loss of abortion as a criminal act and seeking to change the law to see abortion as no more than any other medical procedure.”
Campbell said that removing abortion from control within the criminal law undermines the framework for protecting women, their unborn children and doctors within an established regulatory framework and opens society to uncontrolled abortion.
“Such an approach is morally wrong — abortion is seen as distinct and unusual within medical procedures — precisely because it involves the taking of a human life,” he said.
In 2016 the government’s Care Quality Commission (CQC) carried out an investigation into MSI, leading them to suspend abortions by MSI for mothers under 18 years old and vulnerable women from August to October 2016.
The CQC’s report, published in December last year, revealed a catalogue of serious failings, including abortionists pre-signing paperwork, abortion drugs being given without abortionist oversight, and lack of staff training about safeguarding patient safety and consent issues related to more vulnerable young mothers and those with learning disabilities.
And in 2012, The Daily Telegraph published an extensive undercover investigation showing abortion doctors authorizing sex-selection abortions. The government’s Crown Prosecution Service claimed its prosecuting these abortionists was not in the public’s interest.
“The current law is not upheld,” Saunders said. “Doctors regularly flout it by invoking the mental-health clause for what are in reality social grounds. 98% of abortions are done on this basis. The police don’t investigate. The Crown Prosecution Service does not prosecute. Judges do not convict, and Parliament turns a blind eye.”
Added Saunders, “But removing the law altogether will make things even worse.”
Register correspondent Daniel Blackman writes from London.