A Scottish approach to abortion

On Monday 12 December we attended the launch of Engender's report: 'Our bodies, our choice: the case for a Scottish approach to abortion'. This report was spearheaded by Engender and supported by members of the women's sector, including Zero Tolerance, Scottish Women's Aid, Rape Crisis Scotland, Amnesty Scotland, NUS Scotland and Close the Gap.

You can download the report here or have a look at tweets from the night on #OurbodiesOurchoice

Our Co-director Rachel Adamson sets out Zero Tolerance's stance on abortion and why we see it as a key part of women's rights.

At Zero Tolerance we welcome yesterday’s publication of a joint report from Scotland’s women’s sector calling on the Scottish Government to seize on the devolution of abortion law as part of the Scotland Act 2016 to develop a Scottish approach to women’s1 reproductive rights. It sets out the need for improved and standardised service provision underpinned by a progressive devolved legal framework, offering a comprehensive and reasonable set of requests that must be taken forward if the Scottish Government is serious about its ambitions to tackle women’s inequality and men’s violence against us.

To tackle all aspects of this violence, women’s rights (which include our reproductive rights) must be at the heart of the conversation and this includes when we are discussing abortion. If we reduce access to abortion, or worse remove it completely, this means forcing women to go through unwanted, painful and potentially traumatic physical processes in carrying a foetus to term, not to mention the impact of this on every aspect of her life. Denying or reducing access to abortion denies women’s rights; it denies our bodily autonomy and is a form of structural violence against women and girls (VAWG).

Contrary to what most people think, the 1967 Abortion Act, which only extends to England, Wales and Scotland, and excludes Northern Ireland2 did not legalise abortion, it simply provided a strict set of criteria under which the procedure would be permissible. In a society that wishes to end VAWG and promote equity, this must change. We must provide access to safe, legal and free abortion on request and without impediment or judgement for all women.

Respecting women’s reproductive rights is fundamental to a world in which women are recognised as equal to our male counterparts. About 25.5% of the world's population reside in countries which either prohibit abortion entirely or permit it only to save a woman's life. And despite legal abortion being safer than childbirth3, 47,000 women a year die attempting to access abortion and many thousands more suffer ill health as a result4.

Whilst progress to improve circumstances for the women behind these statistics has been made, throughout 2016 we’ve seen the fragility of these hard won advances. In America the President elect has suggested the future appointment of Supreme Court judges to repeal Roe vs Wade, while in Poland a bill was introduced to tighten the country’s already restrictive abortion rules, to name just two high profile examples. Whilst here in Scotland, since the Parliamentary motions of 20155, there has been very little public or political discussion. 

Zero Tolerance was pleased to hear the First Minister agree to consider allowing our Irish sisters access to abortions free of charge in the Scottish health service. We now call on her and her Government to lead a further discussion on abortion and to lead it in a manner which stays true to her commitments to tackle women's inequality. Not just making enhancements to service provision for the 10 women a day who come to Britain from Ireland for an abortion, but also enhancing the system for those women living in Scotland. Induced abortion is one of the most commonly performed gynaecological procedures in this country. According to reports from the Information Services Division Scotland, 12,082 abortions were recorded in Scotland between 2014 and 2015.  One in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime. Yet, abortion comes under the jurisdiction of criminal law, requiring the approval of two doctors - the only medical procedure in Scotland with such a requirement. According to doctors’ professional guidelines, conscientious objectors should refer someone who is seeking an abortion to another provider. However, they are not legally obliged to do so.

So, in 2017, let us recognise that 52% of Scotland's population may at some time in their life require an abortion.  That same 52% have been working for free in Scotland since November 10th; are more likely to suffer from sexual violence and are more likely to be killed by their intimate partner. In a year's time, let us hope we can look back on how, in 2017, Scotland took steps towards not only developing a progressive legal framework around abortion, but that it has done so with women's rights at the heart of the conversation, recognising it as one element of a broader set of actions required to move us further forward towards equity between women and men.

1.  ZT recognises that abortion primarily affects women, but other groups may be affected.
2. In Northern Ireland abortion is legal if a woman’s life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious risk to her health, but not in the cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, rape and incest.
3. Raymond and Grimes (2012) The comparative safety of legal induced abortion and childbirth in the United States
4. World Health Organisation (2011) Unsafe abortion: Global and regional estimates of the incidence of unsafe abortion and associated mortality in 2008
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