22 May 2013
It is easy to become complacent about women’s reproductive rights in mainland Britain. Compared to our Irish neighbours, women here are able to access their chosen contraceptive, abortion and maternity services with relative ease. When Savita Halappanavar died after she was refused an abortion in Galway, commentators lamented a system where a woman could be told by healthcare staff that she couldn’t have an abortion because Ireland is a Catholic country. We imagined that such events could not happen here. A recent judgment of the Scottish Inner House of the Court of Session (the Scottish Court of Appeal) shakes that belief. Of most concern is that the court failed to engage with the human rights implications of its decision.
Our abortion law is found in the Abortion Act 1967. Section 1 makes abortion lawful only when it has been authorised by two doctors who attest that continuing the pregnancy poses a risk to a woman’s physical or mental health, or where the child would ‘suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped’. In effect, all abortions, save those for fetal abnormality, are performed on the basis that there is a threat to the woman’s physical or mental integrity as a result of pregnancy. Section 4 excuses a person from ‘participating in any treatment’ under the Act if they express a conscientious objection to abortion. As the Abortion Rights campaign points out, the law gives doctors control over women’s informed choices about their pregnancy that can lead to damaging delays in accessing abortion services.