Offences Against the Person Act 1861

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:45 pm on 5th June 2018.

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Photo of Sarah Wollaston Sarah Wollaston Chair, Health and Social Care Committee, Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons) 3:45 pm, 5th June 2018

I thank the hon. Lady for making those points. If the House will forgive me, I am mindful that many Members wish to speak, so I will not take further interventions.

There is a further point about the impact of medical terminations of pregnancy using two medicines. Because of the restrictions of the Act, the second of those medicines currently has to be administered in the clinic, which means that women sometimes have to face the extreme indignity of travelling home with heavy bleeding and in considerable pain. It is time for the House to review the whole way in which this operates, and to shift to a medical model. We know that there is an opportunity to put this right with an amendment to the domestic violence Bill, and I say to Ministers that now is the time to plan ahead for that, rather than looking the other way and saying that this is purely a devolved matter. We know that a cross-party amendment will be tabled, and now is the time to be planning ahead and making the thoughtful, careful preparations that we need to make about the kind of medical regulations we wish to see in place.

Of course, there are those who say that repealing sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 will lead to us being thrown into some kind of vacuum, but that is not the case. The hon. Member for Walthamstow pointed out that the term limit of 24 weeks would remain in place, and there are other protections. For example, it is already an offence to supply abortion pills under the Human Medicines Regulations 2012, and individuals can face up to two years in prison and a considerable fine for supplying such medications illegally. Equally, some say that there might be a free for all in people turning to back-street abortionists, with unqualified people carrying out surgical procedures—it has happened in the past—but that is not the case. That would still constitute actual bodily harm or grievous bodily harm, and unqualified people would not be able to rely on the victim’s consent to the procedure as a defence under sections 47 and 20 of the 1861 Act, which would remain in place. Such offences would carry a penalty of up to five years in a prison and a fine.

The point here is that it is highly unlikely that anyone would want to visit a back-street abortionist if free, safe, confidential and non-stigmatising help was available free of charge on the NHS. As many colleagues have pointed out, we do not stop abortions happening by criminalising them and making an abortion difficult to access; we just make them happen in a less safe context.

I ask Ministers to start preparing for the inevitable cross-party amendments. I hope that the Minister in summing up will be clear that there will be no delay in the domestic violence Bill for fear of a controversial amendment, because an amendment will be tabled, and now is the time to ensure that all the regulations we need are carefully and thoughtfully consulted upon. As someone mentioned earlier, this process would allow the devolved Assemblies to decide what is right for their areas. The time is right for us to move from a situation in which women are criminalised to one where women are treated with respect and dignity.