On Friday, 24 June, the U.S. Supreme Court voted to overturn Roe v. Wade, a landmark 1973 law which gave pregnant people the right to choose to have an abortion. The new ruling has taken away this liberty, meaning individual states can dictate their own abortion policy. It is thought that 26 states may now ban abortions, stripping around 30 million people of their right to have autonomy over their bodies.
While this devastating news might feel confined to America, it’s a small world, and the impact of this decision has been felt across the globe. Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the ruling “a big step backwards” for the US in a news conference, while labour leader Keir Starmer tweeted: “The right of women to make their own decisions about their own bodies is a fundamental human right.”
People took to the streets across the country, with a protest taking place outside the US embassy in Vauxhall, London, as campaigners held signs saying: “Our bodies, our choice.” The verdict has undoubtedly rocked the foundations of basic human rights, leading many to question if this can happen in America, it could happen anywhere. So how will this decision affect abortion care in the UK?
Since the 1967 Abortion Act was passed, pregnant people in England, Scotland, and Wales have been permitted to legally choose to have an abortion up to 23 weeks and six days of pregnancy. However, services must ask why the abortion is wanted, and two doctors must verify that the requirements of the Abortion Act are met. Incredibly, terminations were only made legal in Northern Ireland in 2019 and are still limited. While the Abortion Act protects pregnant people here to a degree, there is always a possibility, albeit unlikely, this could change.
Stella Creasy, MP for Walthamstow, tweeted: “You think what you see in America couldn’t happen here? Then you don’t understand who is organising in UK politics. No one thought American Supreme Court would ever overturn a right previously granted either.. These attacks on women’s rights won’t stop. Be prepared.”
While the US Supreme Court has the power to overrule legislation and declare an original judgement as unconstitutional, that is not the case this side of the pond. In the UK, parliament has full control. Completely repealing a law like the Abortion Act is extremely rare, but amendments, like the time limits on terminations, could be made. Any change would need to be collectively voted for by the government in the Commons and then agreed by the Lords.
As a whole, there does not seem to be any appetite for amending the Abortion Act. However, there have been anti-abortion rumblings in parliament in recent times. Tory frontbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg has been vocal about his views, telling “Good Morning Britain” in 2017 that he believes terminations to be “morally indefensible”. Former Health Minister Jeremy Hunt has previously argued that the time limit for abortions should be halved from 24 weeks to 12 weeks in an interview with Sky.
“The most important thing people in the UK can do to support abortion rights is to be loudly, unashamedly pro-choice,” Abortion Support Network founder Mara Clarke told The Independent. “The anti-abortion population is less than 10 per cent of the UK’s population. We are the pro-choice majority, and we should speak often about not only abortion but about all reproductive health issues.”
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service has launched a petition to Foreign Secretary Liz Truss to condemn the assault to human rights in America. BPAS states: “Many vulnerable and desperate women will be forced to take matters into their own hands, resorting to illegal – and potentially unsafe – methods. The US ruling also sends a dangerous message to the world at a time when women in many countries are still struggling to achieve abortion rights.” This petition also puts pressure on the government to protect UK funding for reproductive health.
The overturning of Roe v. Wade is a stark wake-up call. Nothing can be taken for granted. Speaking out in solidarity with our American counterparts and reinforcing the right to choose what we do with our bodies is essential in protecting our civil liberties.
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