An empty hospital bed
Image credit: Bret Kavanaugh/Unsplash

The reversal of Roe v Wade in the United States last year sent shockwaves throughout the world. As some states moved to criminalise abortion, there was outcry against the idea of pregnant women being treated as criminals for exerting agency over their own bodies. But, as a new report from researchers at the World Health Organization (WHO) makes clear, criminalisation of abortion is the norm, not the exception, globally. Of the 182 countries for which there was data as of October 2022, abortion was completely decriminalised in just one: Canada. Penalties range from fines to, in a handful of countries, life imprisonment. 

In the UK there is a widespread belief that abortion is not a crime. In England, Scotland and Wales, the procedure is legal if authorised by two doctors before 24 weeks’ gestation, or in cases where there are serious health risks to continuing the pregnancy. But it remains criminalised outside these parameters under legislation passed in 1861.

Last year, at least two women were charged with abortion-related offences in England, both for allegedly taking abortion pills after the 24-week limit. One of the cases was dropped after prosecutors agreed it was not in the public interest to pursue it; the other woman pled guilty to unlawfully administering a poison or noxious thing with intent to procure a miscarriage, an offence under the 1861 law, and is awaiting sentencing. This year, already, at least two more people have been charged. 

Dozens of women have also been investigated over the past decade, according to a recent report in the Observer. Some were arrested in their hospital beds; at least one was jailed. A girl as young as 15 had her phone and laptop confiscated, for investigation, during her GCSE exams. Police produced text exchanges with her boyfriend, where she expressed doubt over having the baby, as evidence against her, before a coroner concluded that the pregnancy had ended due to natural causes. 

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland maintained a near-total ban on abortions until 2020, when Westminster took advantage of the collapse of Stormont’s power-sharing deal to intervene. There are still 11 countries – including Andorra and Malta – where abortion is prohibited in all circumstances.

The great irony of these laws is that they don’t reduce abortions. A study in 2020 from researchers at the Guttmacher Institute and WHO found that the abortion rate was the same in countries where it was “broadly legal” as in those where it was completely banned. Meanwhile, even partial criminalisation can be dangerous, because it can discourage or delay women from seeking safe abortions and cause health workers to be overly cautious, even to the point of denying legal forms of care.

The evidence is clear: criminalisation only serves to limit safe and regulated abortions, while putting women and girls at risk.

This is a preview from New Humanist's summer 2023 issue. Subscribe here.