Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off one whole year of Unlimited learning. Subscribe for just £249.99 £174.99. New subscribers only. T&Cs apply

Find out more

Abortion: a lifetime's campaigning

Watch lifelong humanist campaigner Diane Munday describe her motivations for liberalising abortion laws

Diane Munday was a key member of the Abortion Law Reform Association when the Abortion Law was changed in Britain in 1968. She has continued to campaign to liberalise abortion laws all her life. She is a Patron of Humanists UK.

Under the 1861 Offenses Against the Person Act (OAPA), it is a crime for a pregnant women, and anyone who assists her, to seek a termination of that pregnancy. This law is one of the most restrictive in Europe, and the criminal sanctions imposed are among the harshest in the world, with the maximum sentence being life imprisonment.

In 1967, The Abortion Act was passed as a private members’ bill in Parliament. This did not repeal the OAPA, but created some exceptional grounds under which abortions could legally take place, and required two doctors to give approval for the procedure to go ahead. Therefore abortion is the only medical procedure governed by criminal law rather than medical regulation. The Abortion Act has never applied in Northern Ireland, which remains governed solely by the OAPA, and where abortion remains only legally accessible if the women’s life is in immediate danger. In 2017, over 900 women from Northern Ireland were known to have travelled to England to seek access to abortion services. (In the next step we will hear more about humanist campaigning on abortion in Northern Ireland.)

Access to safe and legal abortion is considered by international law to be a human right. Everyone has the right to health and the right to be free from violence, discrimination, torture and cruel and degrading treatment. Denying women access to abortion or forcing them to continue a pregnancy against their wishes is considered to be a violation of these rights. Moreover, maintaining laws that only criminalise women, such as criminal sanctions against abortion, is gender-based discrimination which is prohibited under the United Nations Convention on the Eradication of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Therefore, there is a strongly held belief that OAPA is out of date and the abortion procedure should be removed from criminal law, known as decriminalisation, in line with the UK’s international obligations. Other countries, such as Canada in 1988, repealed such legal restrictions.

Question: How much does the debate on abortion centre on the rights of the embryo or foetus rather than on the rights of the woman?

This article is from the free online

Humanist Lives, with Alice Roberts

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now