Women’s charities seize moment to urge enhancement of reproductive rights

Nathanael Williams

As abortion law is devolved to Scotland, charities demand stronger protection for rights

CHARITIES have this week joined forces to demand that the legal framework surrounding reproductive rights in Scotland is emboldened and made more progressive.

They were responding to a report called “Our Bodies, Our choice”, released this week, that outlined the measures needed to ensure that no reproductive rights are rolled back in the event of the law being brought within the competence of the Scottish Parliament.

Engender, Scottish Women’s Aid (SWA), Zero Tolerance, Close the Gap, Amnesty Scotland, Rape Crisis Scotland (RCS) and NUS Scotland have all urged the Scottish Government to commit to the full decriminalisation and strengthening of the abortion rights of women in Scotland.

In 2011 and 2013 respectively, 233 and 182 women had to travel to England in order to access late term abortion 

Emma Ritch, executive director of Engender, who headed-up the creation report, said: “Like most Scots, Engender trusts women to make decisions about ending or continuing a pregnancy. Unfortunately, the legal and regulatory regime we have inherited from the UK means that women who have abortions are criminalised, that doctors make the decision about whether women can legally terminate a pregnancy, and that treatment is administered in a way that does not best meet women’s needs.

“As Scotland develops its approach to abortion following the transfer of powers, we are calling for women’s autonomy and well-being to be put at the heart of decision-making.”

Currently, under the criteria of the 1967 law, a woman must gain approval for an abortion from two doctors, and may only do so within the 24 weeks gestation period. The only exception is in cases where the health of the woman is at risk, or serious foetal abnormality is found.

Among the recommendations of the report, Engender call for a women’s right to an abortion or any other services to be “protected against the ‘conscientious objection’ of auxiliary staff”. In effect, this would remove any chance for the personal opinion of any staff to be used in obstructing access to abortion services, making a woman’s choice entirely sovereign.

They also want the Scottish Government to create a national framework to standardise access to abortion in Scotland and deal with any regional difference in abortion time limits. The charity has also stated that schools should make sure education on reproductive rights and healthy relationships are rooted in a broader commitment to dealing with the stigma surrounding abortion in Scotland.

Speaking to CommonSpace Sandy Brindley, the national coordinator of RCS, said: “Access to safe abortion must be a fundamental right for all women.  In Scotland, there are specific issues for women who are pregnant as a result of rape, particularly in relation to access to what is considered later term abortions (though still within the current legal time limit of 24 weeks). Along with other human rights-focused organisations, we are calling on the Scottish Government to develop an approach to abortion in Scotland which more fully upholds women’s reproductive rights.”

“As Scotland develops its approach to abortion following the transfer of powers, we are calling for women’s autonomy and well-being to be put at the heart of decision-making.” Emma Ritch

Abortion effectively remains a criminal offence in the UK and Scotland. Under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA), any pregnant woman who attempts to “procure her own miscarriage” will be “kept in penal servitude for life.” This meant that abortion was punishable with a life sentence in prison for women and their “accomplices”. The Abortion Act pased in 1967 was an amendment which made abortion legal only if certain conditions are met.

Scotland lags behind England in its provision of late-term abortions, as they are not usually granted after a 20 week period in Scotland. Respectivley in 2011 and 2013, 233 and 182 women travelled to England for late-term aboritions.

Welcoming the focus on women’s autonomy for a specifically Scottish path, Naomi McAuliffe, Scotland’s programme director of Amnesty International said: “There is a real opportunity in Scotland for the law relating to abortion to be brought in line with international human rights law, which will mean removing it from the criminal law. People don’t want to see women going to prison for having an abortion, which is a draconian idea. We have recommended how the Scottish Government could make it fit for purpose.”

When contacted by CommonSpace the Scottish Government said that it welcomed the new powers but has “no plans to alter the legislation around abortion rights in any way.”

Picture courtesy of Sarah Thoms

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