With responsibility for abortion law being transferred to the Scottish Parliament, now is no time to be complacent on women’s rights, says ANN HENDERSON
THE 50th anniversary of the passing of the 1967 Abortion Act is approaching.
Full recognition must be given to the many women and men who campaigned for safe, legal and free access to abortion services across Britain, and continue to do so, including for access to be extended to Ireland, north and south.
Abortion Rights, the pro-choice campaign which brought together the National Abortion Campaign and the Abortion Law Reform Association, is currently collecting memories and archive resources, preparing exhibitions and publications for 2017.
Sally Sheldon, professor of law at the University of Kent and Dr Gayle Davis, senior lecturer in history of medicine at the University of Edinburgh, are leading a unique biographical study of the 1967 Abortion Act funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which will present its final report in Westminster on the anniversary date, April 27 2018.
In Scotland, we have a new situation, one which deserves attention, and also reflection, in the context of those 50th Anniversary events. The Scotland Act 2016 transfers responsibility for abortion law to the Scottish Parliament and this took effect from May 23.The new Scottish Parliament elected on May 5 has a clear majority in support of retaining the provisions of the 1967 Abortion Act.
The new SNP minority Scottish government has made clear that it has “no plans to change the law on abortion.” This position was in the SNP manifesto.
For the first time ever, the Scottish Labour Party took a manifesto to the electorate with a clear statement on abortion rights: “We believe that standing up against women’s inequality means standing up for women’s rights.
“Scottish Labour is committed to ensuring equal access, irrespective of geographical location, to contraceptive advice, family planning services and abortion services. We have no plans to change the law on abortion.”
The Scottish Green Party manifesto reflects its commitment to women’s rights on abortion and to a policy of decriminalisation.
The Scottish Conservatives and Liberal Democrat manifestos did not specify views, but in recent years members’ motions tabled in the Scottish Parliament have received cross-party support.
In 2012, a parliamentary members’ motion was tabled by Kezia Dugdale MSP, now leader of the Scottish Labour Party, which noted with deep regret the death of Savita Halappanavar, who died during pregnancy after being denied an abortion in the Republic of Ireland, and asserted the Scottish Parliament’s support for a woman’s right to choose and the right to access safe abortion anywhere in the world.
Support for this position came from MSPs of all parties, including Scottish Conservative Jackson Carlaw and Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie.
When 40 Days for Life decided to organise a vigil outside the new Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow in February, there was widespread condemnation of its action, and Abortion Rights, along with the Humanist Society for Scotland, organised a well-attended lobby of the Scottish Parliament on February 9.
NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde issued a statement making clear that staff and patients should be able to access services free from intimidation or harassment.
In Scotland over 98 per cent of abortions are carried out by the NHS, on NHS premises.
The Scottish government has given a commitment to continuing with this approach.
However, research over the last couple of years in Scotland has identified a serious gap in NHS service provision, under the terms of the 1967 Abortion Act.
For women seeking later terminations, NHS Scotland cannot provide the services needed in most cases, and women are required to travel to England, adding travel costs, isolation and stress at a very difficult time.
STUC Women’s Conference last year agreed this was unacceptable and a campaigning priority which will be raised again with Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport Shona Robison MSP.
Access to free safe and legal contraceptive advice, services and abortions was always of particular importance to working-class women and their families, with no access to private financial assistance. This was understood by some practitioners in Scotland too.
Dugald Baird, working as a registrar in Glasgow in the 1920s, believed that while medical professionals should be involved in the termination of pregnancies, the final decision rested with the woman.
Interestingly, prior to 1967, under the common law of Scotland, it had been possible for a doctor to terminate a pregnancy after due consultation with other professionals and if acting in good faith in the interests of the woman, although it was arguably still technically illegal. But there were no prosecutions in Scotland.
Baird in 1936 moved to take up the chair of midwifery in Aberdeen University. Aberdeen had developed a more liberal approach to sexual health services and to abortion provision using the common law framework, and he worked closely with the Abortion Law Reform Association nationally.
Aberdeen was held up as a good example as the campaign sought to persuade MPs to support David Steel’s Bill in 1967, and Baird argued successfully, along with others, for wording the legislation in a way which did not separate social from medical factors.
The Scottish Parliament now takes on responsibility for abortion law. The context is one of majority parliamentary and public support in Scotland for legal safe abortion on the NHS.
This is a credit to all who have spoken up for women’s rights in the past, despite challenges and obstructions.
While concerns about abortion services differing across borders will remain, there is now time to reflect and discuss how best to ensure women can make their own decisions about their lives, making improvements in services as we also learn from the past.
Ann Henderson, Abortion Rights Committee Scotland
- Ann Henderson is STUC assistant secretary and a member of the Abortion Rights executive committee and of the Abortion Rights Committee Scotland.
- If you would like to get involved in the 50th Anniversary events or have any memories or proposals to contribute from your own workplace, family or community, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Abortion Rights Scotland and local groups in Edinburgh, Dundee and Glasgow can be contacted at email@example.com.
This article was originally published in Morning Star