Offences Against the Person Act 1861

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:39 pm on 5th June 2018.

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Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow 2:39 pm, 5th June 2018

I thank the hon. Lady for her question and absolutely wish to take up the challenge that she presents, because I completely respect the point of view that she puts forward. Let me therefore make some progress and set out precisely what we are proposing.

The Offences Against the Person Act 1861 puts abortion in the same category as homicide, destroying or damaging a building with the use of gunpowder with the intent to murder, child stealing, rape, and defilement of women. Abortion might be the most common procedure that our constituents who are women of reproductive age undergo, but even today, in 2018, we do not let them make the choice themselves to have that procedure.

We would like to repeal sections 58 and 59 of OAPA. Letting sections 58 and 59 stay on the statute book does not address many of the challenges that we see today in abortion provision. For example, extending the Abortion Act 1967 does not address the impact of the pills I mentioned, or indeed the paternalism that says women are not to be trusted to make choices about their bodies.

I also want to be clear about what we are not doing in repealing those sections of OAPA. This is not an attempt to remove the criminal charges that come after 24 weeks —let me make that explicitly clear, because I have seen briefings from some anti-choice organisations that suggest otherwise. We are not intending to amend or repeal the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929, which covers and still has the power to criminalise abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy. Decriminalising abortion up to 24 weeks of pregnancy would mean that the Abortion Act 1967 became redundant before 24 weeks of pregnancy. As abortion before 24 weeks of pregnancy would no longer be a crime, we would no longer need the 1967 Act to act as a defence for women who had sought such an abortion. However, the exemptions that the 1967 Act provides for termination post 24 weeks would remain, and the 1967 Act would provide exemptions to prosecution under the Infant Life (Preservation) Act—for example, in cases of severe foetal abnormality or where the mother’s life is at risk. That might seem complicated, so let me put it as simply as possible: the time limit would not change, nor would the important role of medics in this matter.

I respect and recognise that some people do not consider abortion a human right and so think a criminal approach is the right response. I recognise that for many more, it is not that that worries them, but the constitutional issues at stake. Even though the Good Friday agreement explicitly retained human rights responsibilities for this place, let me reassure those MPs who want to uphold the role of devolved Assemblies that repealing OAPA would not write a particular abortion law for anyone, but would require them to act. This proposal would respect devolution; it would not reject it.