Half a century after abortions were legalised, women seeking terminations are still being stigmatised. It’s time to take abortion out of the criminal code and regulate it like any other healthcare measure

The 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act this week has left me reflecting on the 40th and 30th anniversaries. Ten years ago, abortion rights were under near constant attack, a pincer movement by a couple of Conservative MPs and the Daily Mail, advancing elaborate, often rather confusing arguments for the miracle of the foetus. The Daily Mail was so entranced, for a while, by the marvel of gestation that it ran a double page spread of the ultra-sound scans from a horse. The aim was to make a wedge issue out of the time–limit, reduce it from 24 weeks to 21, with a 10–minute rule bill tabled by Tory MP Nadine Dorries suggesting a “cooling off period after the first point of contact with a medical practitioner about a termination”.

It was plain, it seemed then, that the time–limit was of no real consequence – late term abortions were a small proportion of the overall number. Rather, the intention was to undermine the act itself; to festoon an already complicated piece of legislation with extra hazards. Ten years before, in 1997, abortion had been the thing nobody talked about; back then nobody, apparently, had ever actually had an abortion, or been party to the thing that gives rise to one. Everybody pro–choice was fighting on behalf of some unnamed other woman, who needed access to safe services, otherwise she would be unsafe; nobody was fighting for their own bodily autonomy. With the Labour government delivering the first majority pro–choice parliament in history, we were all expecting change – most urgently, for the women of Northern Ireland, British citizens denied the abortion rights of their compatriots for reasons that made no constitutional sense and pertained only to the loud voices of devout men. No change came and an air of embarrassed necessity settled on the matter.

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