13:26, September 22 86 0 theguardian.com

2017-09-22 13:26:03
Abortion should not be a crime, say Britain's childbirth doctors

Britain’s childbirth doctors have urged ministers to scrap laws dating to Victorian times that could see a woman jailed for life for having an abortion.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) voted on Friday to support the growing demand for decriminalisation of abortion in Britain.

Its ruling council agreed to change the college’s position from neutrality on the issue to one that urges the repeal of sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861.

Those sections mean that a woman who has a termination without getting the legal approval of two doctors – perhaps by buying abortion pills online – could be given a life sentence, as could anyone helping her.

Advocates of changing that law say that, if it happened, it would be more symbolic than practical, however. It would not change current abortion practice under the Abortion Act 1967, such as the 24-week legal time limit or the need for two doctors to be satisfied that the termination was necessary on medical grounds or in the interests of a woman’s health.

RCOG council members, who represent the UK’s 11,500 specialists in maternity care and women’s health, strongly backed a motion which said: “The RCOG supports the removal of criminal sanctions associated with abortion in the UK.

“We believe the procedure should be subject to regulatory and professional standards, in line with other medical procedures, rather than criminal sanctions.

“Abortion services should be regulated. However, abortion – for women, doctors and other healthcare professionals – should be treated as a medical, rather than a criminal, issue.”

The RCOG is the third key medical body to back the call to scrap those sections of the 1861 legislation.

The British Medical Association, the doctors’ union, threw its weight behind decriminalisation for the first time at its annual conference in June. The Royal College of Midwives, which represents the UK’s 48,000 midwives, has also supported the switch since February 2016.

In a briefing sent to RCOG council members before the vote, Prof Lesley Regan, the college’s president, said it needed to reach an agreed position on decriminalisation before the 50th anniversary of the 1967 act, which legalised terminations in England, Scotland and Wales, but not Northern Ireland. That falls on 27 October.

“Currently, if a woman ends her pregnancy without the permission of two doctors, she can be sentenced to life in prison. The increasingly easy availability of abortifacients [drugs that induce abortions] online makes this scenario far more likely than in the past. No other medical procedure in the UK is so out of step with clinical and technological developments,” Regan said.

But some doctors criticised the RCOG’s move. Dr Kiran Eyre, a member of the BMA’s south-east coast regional council, said decriminalisation would prove “dangerous” and breached doctors’ ethical duty to not do harm to patients.

“We all expect to be protected from external threat and damage to our bodies under the criminal law; the potentially sentient foetus should be afforded similar rights. Decriminalisation is a radical step that cannot be reconciled with our principle of non-maleficence as the evidence currently stands,” he said.

“Abortion is undeniably a controversial topic but at present the legal position is a fair compromise in a challenging ethical field. Radically changing our laws, which should strive to protect both the viable foetus and mother, is a dangerous step towards undermining both how we value human life and how we treat our patients.”