What is the abortion amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill all about?

Today the House of Commons is likely to consider an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill as it makes its way through parliament. Pro-life campaigners have highlighted this as being one of those most significant moments in the debate about abortion with the amendment potentially sweeping away any outstanding protections for an unborn child. But why might that be the case.

It would be helpful to give a little background.  The 1967 Abortion Act was brought in by David steel as a backbench private members’ bill with Government support in response to provisions within the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. That Act says that

Every woman, being with child, who, with intent to procure her own miscarriage, shall unlawfully administer to herself any poison or other noxious thing, or shall unlawfully use any instrument or other means whatsoever with the like intent, and whosoever, with intent to procure the miscarriage of any woman, whether she be or be not with child, shall unlawfully administer to her or cause to be taken by her any poison or other noxious thing, or shall unlawfully use any instrument or other means whatsoever with the like intent, shall be guilty of felony, and being convicted thereof shall be liable F2 … to be kept in penal servitude for life [1]

And further

Whosoever shall unlawfully supply or procure any poison or other noxious thing, or any instrument or thing whatsoever, knowing that the same is intended to be unlawfully used or employed with intent to procure the miscarriage of any woman, whether she be or be not with child, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and being convicted thereof shall be liable F2 … to be kept in penal servitude[2]

This means that attempting to abort a baby is a criminal offence.  The 1967 Act in effect provides defences for someone carrying out an abortion by stating where it is legal, namely:

“Subject to the provisions of this section, a person shall not be guilty of an offence under the law relating to abortion when a pregnancy is terminated by a registered medical practitioner if two registered medical practitioners are of the opinion, formed in good faith—

[F1(a)that the pregnancy has not exceeded its twenty-fourth week and that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family; or

(b)that the termination is necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman; or

(c)that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk to the life of the pregnant woman, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated; or

(d)that there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.”[3]

It is important to note that within the legislation as it stands, a reason ro abortion (up until 24 weeks) is that the mental and physical health of the pregnant woman is at risk. I believe that this criteria would cover a woman who has become pregnant as a result of rape and is therefore under deep emotional distress and who might self harm.[4]

The amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill up for debate today does two things. First of all, it removes Sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act and secondly it replaces them with new clauses that specify that the offence is one of “non consensual termination of a pregnancy.”

Why does this matter and what will the affect be? Well this is answered very clearly in the Member’s explanatory statement where they say that the intention of the amendment is to decriminalise abortion.  What this means is that the offences outlined in the 1861 Act will no longer be present making the 1967 Act redundant.

It is helpful to think through how our ethical position as a society has shifted on this. In 1967, it was not considered appropriate to simply amend the Offences Against the Person Act and decriminalise abortion. Rather, it was felt that there should be a number of strictly controlled legal exceptions. Why was this so? Well  I think that it is to do with our understanding of who the person is against whom the offense is committed.

In the original 1861 Act, the mother herself could be guilty of an offence if she administered poisons to abort the baby.  This clearly is not about self-harm because if it was about self-harm or suicide then the potential presence of a baby would be irrelevant. Rather, the offence was against the baby itself. It was the child’s life that was at risk of harm. In effect, the 1861 Act recognised the child as a person. The 1967 Act with its limit at 24 weeks therefore is not merely about defining when it is legal to end a life but is seeking to determining when life is viable and the embryo is recognised as a person with their own rights.

What the new clause does is in effect say that the life which matters when we are considering abortion is the mother’s. This means that legal protection against harm for unborn babies will be removed. Let that sink in. The House of Commons today will potentially take us to a situation where some lives are considered completely unworthy of legal protection.

Now, whether or not you agree with abortion, even if you think it should be available for longer into pregnancy, even if you think that it should be available for a wider set of reasons, I hope you will recognise that sneaking in such a radical change not just to the law but to the very values that our society holds to is not the way that the business of government should be conducted.

It shows a careless attitude not just towards the issue of abortion but also towards the victims of Domestic Abuse. I’m sure that this is not intentional, just thoughtless. The Domestic Abuse Act has been horrendously delayed beyond what is reasonably acceptable. To attach unrelated clauses to it to address other issues misuses it and risks delaying it further.

However, as a Christian I want to return to this central point, that to sweep away the rights and protections of young, vulnerable lives is something that we should speak against. We believe that the Bible teaches that we are all made in God’s image and that is the basis for human dignity and value. There are no exceptions to that truth either due to age (the unborn baby through to the elderly person) or disability.

Let’s speak up today for those who cannot speak up for themselves.


[1] Offences Against the Person Act 1861, Section 58

[2] Offences Against the Person Act 1861, Section 59.

[3] Abortion Act 1967, Section 1 (1).

[4] I am  not commenting on the rights and wrongs of this at the moment, just stating what I believe the Law provides for.

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