It may soon be possible for women to have an abortion up to term for any reason via pills by post. Pro-life groups have reacted with horror to the proposals.


Source: Marko Subotin / Alamy Stock Photo

For years, it seemed as though the abortion debate in the UK was frozen.

Huge swathes of the country were in favour of abortion along with almost the entire political establishment. The law had been unchanged for decades and apart from a tiny fringe of mostly Christian pro-life groups, nobody was interested in re-opening up the statute book.

Most churches and Christians watched on with bemusement at the passions abortion ignited in the United States. Back home, most were content to ignore or avoid the issue. It was out of sight and almost out of mind. But then, everything changed.

First, starting in Ealing in 2018, local councils began imposing buffer zones around abortion clinics. These were targeted at stopping mostly Christian pro-life activists from protesting, praying or offering information to women attending clinics. That same year, a UK Supreme Court ruling paved the way for parliament to sweep away Northern Ireland’s highly restrictive abortion regime in 2019 (taking advantage of a collapse in devolved government at Stormont).

The next year saw more huge reforms when the covid pandemic prompted MPs to rush through the introduction of telemedicine early medical abortions, often referred to as “pills by post”. This allowed women for the first time to be seen online or on the phone rather in person at an abortion clinic, before being sent the pills needed to terminate a pregnancy at home. Initially intended to be a temporary measure, after the lockdowns ended MPs and Lords voted to make it a permanent feature in 2022.

That year also saw Roe vs Wade overturned by the US Supreme Court, wiping out the constitutional right to an abortion and returning the issue to each state to decide. The ruling was like a bomb going off in the abortion debate – it immediately energised both pro-life and pro-choice movements in America and that fresh energy has been harnessed across the Atlantic too.

One final legal case here in Britain brings us to up to date. Last year, 45-year-old Carla Foster was convicted of illegally taking abortion pills during the covid lockdown. She told the abortion clinic she was only seven weeks pregnant, but was in fact between 32 and 34 weeks when she took the pills (the abortion limit in Britain is 24 weeks). Her baby was born not breathing shortly afterwards and died. Her conviction and initial sentence of 14 months in prison provoked outcry among pro-choice groups (and was reduced to a suspended sentence on appeal).

Determined to prevent any more Carla Fosters, a Labour MP has tabled an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill currently going through parliament which would decriminalise abortion, making it impossible for any mother to be prosecuted for ending her own pregnancy.

Pro-life groups have warned that Diana Johnson’s amendment would make it possible for women to end abortions up to term for any reason via pills by post, without any fear of legal sanction. The amendment is expected to be debated by the House of Commons next month, and it is the convention for the government to allow a free vote on abortion, meaning it is very plausible it could pass with cross-party support.

“There is nothing progressive or compassionate about allowing viable babies to have their lives ended by their own mothers in their own homes,” said Alithea Williams, from the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child. “We need to appreciate the true horror of this proposal. Abortion is already legal up to 24 weeks of pregnancy, past when it is possible for premature babies to survive. Extending it to birth would be a slaughter of the innocents on a biblical scale.”

There is nothing compassionate about allowing viable babies to have their lives ended

Catherine Robinson, a spokesperson for Right To Life, said more than half of all abortions already happened without any in-person medical oversight, which was why more and more mothers were being prosecuted for unlawful late abortion. “Incredibly, even those pushing for a change in the law acknowledge that the move to ‘telemedicine’ abortion is a likely reason for the increase in prosecutions. Instead of pushing for fewer safeguards through these amendments, MPs who care about women and their babies should be seeking greater oversight and protections, including an ending of abortion outside of a clinical setting.”

The British public at large remains mostly strongly in favour of abortion access. YouGov polling last year suggested 87% of Britons believed abortion should be legal. When it comes to abortions outside the rules, there was more uncertainty, with 52% saying women should not be prosecuted, versus 21% backing enforcing the law and a further 28% unsure.

However, when drilling down into some of the more precise details, there seems to be some openness to change. One in four said they thought the current 24-week time limit was too late and should be reduced, rising to 35% (more than one in three) of women surveyed. Right To Life have done their own polling, which suggests 79% support a five-day cooling off period for pregnant mothers to consider their options before being granted an abortion and a staggering 93% of women agree there should be a legal right to independent counselling for women considering abortion.

Fascinatingly, the very same Criminal Justice Bill that Labour’s Johnson is using to try and push through decriminalisation is also the vehicle for a counter-amendment by Conservative MP and Christian, Caroline Ansell. This would reduce the time-limit for abortions to 22 weeks. It has the backing of 25 MPs and several Christian doctors and ethicists, but the arguments being made are almost all scientific rather than moral. The original time limit of 28 weeks set in the 1967 Abortion Act was already reduced once in 1990 to take account of advances in medicine and the reduction in the age of viability. Over the past 15 years, the survival rate of babies born at 23 weeks has doubled, the campaigners argue, meaning the time limit must come down again to reflect this. In 2020-21, a study showed that 261 babies born at 22 or 23 weeks survived to be discharged from hospital, whereas in 2021 alone there were 755 babies aborted at 22 or 23 weeks gestation.

“This leaves a real contradiction in British law,” a Right To Life briefing argues. “In one room of a hospital, doctors could be working to save a baby born alive at 23 weeks whilst, in another room of that same hospital, a doctor could perform an abortion that would end the life of a baby at the same age.” While the change, if voted through, would not make any real dent in the total number of abortions in Britain – the vast majority of which take place during the first trimester – it would be a moral victory for the pro-life movement and the first meaningful tightening of abortion laws for a generation. The UK regime, even before de facto full-term decriminalisation, is the most liberal in Europe, with almost all other countries setting their limits between 10 and 14 weeks.

There are signs the growing energy and dynamism on both sides of the abortion debate is still building. In France, an overwhelming vote in parliament recently passed an amendment to the constitution to make abortion a legal right. And the conflict between pro-life and pro-choicers is sometimes spilling over beyond parliament and the media into real life. A pro-life student group at Manchester University was recently harassed by a large and aggressive protest by pro-choice students on campus, requiring the police to keep the peace. And there has also been a steady stream of heavy-handed arrests by police of pro-life activists doing nothing more than silently praying outside abortion clinics.

It remains difficult to predict where the increasingly febrile and contentious abortion debate will go next. But it seems clear now the lid has been taken off what had been a stagnant and sidelined issue, it is not going back on any time soon.