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Why the RCOG vote for decriminalisation matters

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The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has voted to accept the decriminalisation of abortion in Great Britain. The motion, supported by RCOG President Lesley Regan, was passed by the RCOG’s senior council. This occurred despite vocal opposition from many of the college’s 6000 members who believe the decision should have been on a member’s ballot.

Understanding the current law

There is much confusion about the legality of abortion in Britain; most assume that abortion has already been decriminalised. This confusion, however, stems from a misunderstanding of the law, as well as the flagrant disregard for the current regulations.

The Abortion Act (1967) legislated the current guidelines by which medical practitioners must abide when carrying out an abortion in England and Wales. The Act did not decriminalise abortion as such, but made allowances for abortion in certain circumstances. Simplified, the allowable circumstances are as follows:

a) The woman is under 24 weeks pregnant and there is a risk of mental or physical handicap to herself, the pre-born child, or existing children.

b) To prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman

c) There is a greater risk to the life of the pregnant woman if the pregnancy is continued

d) There is a substantial risk that the child will be suffer from significant physical or mental disability

Two registered medical practitioners must assess in good faith that one of these circumstances is present, for an abortion to be legal. An illegal abortion can lead to life-time imprisonment for both the practitioner and the recipient.

Failure to uphold the law in practice

While theoretically the Abortion Act (1967) only allowed for regulated abortion in certain circumstances, functionally it is clear that there has been widespread failure to uphold the law: In the past 5 years problems have included, but not been limited to:

1. Doctors failing to properly assess women seeking an abortion, pre-signing referral forms. Earlier this year it was discovered that Marie Stopes has been signing off women for abortions after only a brief phone conversation with a call centre worker – some calls lasting only 22 seconds.

2. Doctors agreeing to perform sex-selective abortions.

3. Gross negligence of care and unhygienic practice in many abortion centres. Abortion rights advocates claim that legalised abortion helps ensure that the pre-born’s life is ended in a medically safe and sterile environment. This isn’t always the case.

4. ‘Staggering’ number of women seeking to purchase illegal abortion pills online. Other forms of ‘DIY’ abortions are being carried out with disastrous consequences and, except in the rarest of circumstances, no legal repercussions.

A timeline towards decriminalisation

With abortion doctors and clinics regularly in the spotlight for malpractice, it should come as no surprise that there are calls for amended legislation. The abortion industry has vested financial and ideological interests in pursuing the decriminalisation of abortion.

In February 2016, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) launched their ‘We Trust Women’ campaign for decriminalisation. As part of their campaign launch BPAS cited their support of a woman jailed for carrying out a DIY abortion while between 32 and 34 weeks pregnant.

In March, Diana Johnson (Labour MP for Hull North) presented a BPAS-backed bill to the House of Commons calling for abortion decriminalisation. Referring to current abortion laws as ‘Victorian’, the Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) Bill was passed to its second reading. This came despite polls showing growing public unease with current abortion allowances and discussions. With Theresa May’s call for a General Election, Johnson’s Bill had to be abandoned, though this has far from silenced decriminalisation advocates.

In June, members of the British Medical Association (BMA) voted to back calls for decriminalisation. BMA ethics professor, Wendy Savage, has repeatedly argued that women should be allowed to choose an abortion based on the child’s sex.

On 22 September the RCOG became the latest to back calls to decriminalise abortion and will now lobby the government to that end.

Decriminalisation dangers

Lesley Regan, spearheading the RCOG’s decision, has emphasised that decriminalisation does not mean deregulation. In practice, it is hard to see how this will work. With current regulations not being adhered to, how will decriminalising abortion bring any improvement to the situation? There are many reasons why abortion should not be decriminalised.

1. Decriminalising abortion would remove any moral standard or code for abortion practice from national legislation. Law is meant to reflect and hold to an objective moral standard. Decriminalisation would trivialise legitimate moral concerns and would portray abortion as morally neutral - something it is not.

2. Decriminalising abortion would remove the possibility of justice for carrying out dangerous DIY and sex-discriminating abortions. There could be regulations, but without legislation what makes those regulations anywhere close to enforceable? Additionally, decriminalisation could see some doctors come under fire for refusing to carry out abortions, which would be a further injustice.

3. Decriminalising abortion promotes sexual irresponsibility. Abortion is increasingly viewed as a more extreme form of contraception. 38% of abortions in the UK last year were repeat abortions. In 2015, 78% of abortions were procured by single women, revealing a clear link between promiscuous behaviour and abortion.

4. Decriminalising abortion would endanger women, leading to a more open market for presently-illegal abortion pills. Convenient and non-intrusive, these pills will likely see increased usage. Although decriminalisation will see certain abortion crime statistics (including the sale of these pills) go down, the reality of dangerous practice will remain.

An affront to what is right

The Hippocratic Oath, taken for centuries in some form by those entering the medical profession states:

"I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. Similarly I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy. In purity and holiness I will guard my life and art."

Decriminalising abortion goes against the spirit of the Hippocratic Oath in every way. For the Christian, decriminalising abortion should never be seen as a legitimate undertaking as it devalues and diminishes the gift and beauty of human life from conception. Life is precious and something to be preserved.

To support abortion decriminalisation forsakes purity and holiness by betraying those preborn babies through denying the reality of their God-given humanity. It removes the restraint that the current law is for mothers who do doubt whether they should have an abortion. It allows our society to continue to fall to its death. A society that kills its youngest and weakest cannot - and should not - survive.