For abortion rights and access around the world, 2022 has been a year like no other. As at-home abortion services were made permanent in England and MPs voted in favour of abortion clinic buffer zones in England and Wales, the rollback of abortion rights in the US served as a reminder that we can never take reproductive rights for granted. In this blog, we take a look back at some key moments for abortion rights in the UK and around the world, and look to what we will be fighting for in 2023.
March 2022: At-home abortion services (telemedicine) are made permanent in England
On 30th March 2022, the House of Commons voted to keep the option of at-home early medical abortion care (telemedicine) in England. MSI Reproductive Choices UK (MSI UK) advocated fiercely, together with partners, to keep this service for our clients. The service allows women and pregnant people to take both pills for early medical abortion at home and was initially introduced as part of the COVID-19 response in March 2020. Before this, only the second pill could be taken at home.
Following a vote of 215 – 188 and moving speeches in support of telemedicine from various MPs, telemedicine was officially made a permanent option for those accessing early medical abortion care in England.
Since its introduction, telemedicine revolutionised abortion care, allowing women and pregnant people to access care in the way that has been proven to be safe, effective and often preferred. Dr Jonathan Lord, Medical Director at MSI UK, described the service as an innovation that ‘will transform care and benefit women and pregnant people for a generation’.
As Louise McCudden, Advocacy and Public Affairs Advisor at MSI UK, said, ‘this was a vote for evidence over ideology, a vote for reproductive rights, and a vote for gender equality.’
Everyone chooses abortion for different reasons and under different circumstances. It is important that we can offer options that take into account personal circumstances – and that includes taking both pills at home.
‘Trusting people to make these choices for themselves is a vital part of how MSI delivers high quality, responsive care for anyone who needs us,’ she said.
June 2022: The US Supreme Court overturns Roe v Wade, rolling back abortion rights in the US
On 24th June 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court announced a decision to overturn Roe v Wade, ruling that there is no constitutional right to abortion in the United States and upending a precedent set nearly 50 years ago.
Roe v Wade was the landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973 to legalise abortion in America. The reversal of Roe v Wade allowed individual US states to ban abortion in the biggest setback to abortion rights in a generation, causing unspeakable harm and threatening decades of progress on gender equality.
When abortion rights are under attack, we feel it around the world. Whilst the overturning of Roe v Wade will not impact abortion law in the UK, it has emboldened anti-choice protestors who are pushing for ever more restrictions on abortion care globally. As Louise McCudden notes: ‘We’re already seeing an increase in anti-choice activity outside some of our clinics, which may well be in part because anti-choice groups feel validated and bolstered by this ruling.’
An increased awareness of anti-choice activity online
In addition to anti-choice activity outside of our clinics, we have seen an increase in anti-choice activity online from groups emboldened by the news from the US. For example, when seeking information about abortion care by googling search terms such as ‘abortion clinics’ or ‘abortion pills’, it is not uncommon to come across adverts from anti-choice organisations. Often, they present themselves as providing impartial advice and quality information, but are in fact biased, coercive and wholly unqualified to offer support.
Google is aware of this issue. The company has responded by introducing an ‘Abortion certification policy’ which, in practical terms, means that users will see abortion-related ads along with an ‘ad disclosure’ stating whether the organisation ‘provides’ or ‘does not provide’ abortions. In August, Google announced that they will also begin ‘specifically labelling medical clinics and hospitals that provide abortion care in its Maps app and websites’. We support changes like these, which will mean those seeking to access essential reproductive healthcare services will be better informed when searching online.
October 2022: MPs vote in favour of abortion clinic buffer zones in England and Wales
On 18th October 2022, MPs in the House of Commons voted in favour of national legislation on abortion clinic buffer zones in England and Wales. If the legislation passes the House of Lords, at long last everyone will have the right to access abortion care free from anti-choice harassment and intimidation, no matter where in the country they happen to live.
What is an abortion clinic buffer zone?
An abortion clinic buffer zone (also known as a ‘safe access zone’) is an area surrounding an abortion clinic where specific anti-choice gatherings and activities are prohibited. Largely in response to advocacy from MSI UK and our partners, some buffer zones have already been introduced at a local by councils. The first ever buffer zone in this country was introduced by Ealing Council around MSI UK’s West London clinic. The new national legislation, which MSI UK has long fought for, will protect access to every clinic in England and Wales, ending the postcode lottery.
Teams across MSI UK celebrated the news, having been forced to witness the cruel tactics of anti-choice groups harassing and intimidating those accessing and providing care.
In response to the news, Louise McCudden said: “This vote marks a huge victory for reproductive rights. This will protect over 100,000 women a year, who will finally be able to access the healthcare to which they are legally entitled free from intimidation and harassment.
“This landmark decision couldn’t have happened without years of inspirational campaigning by groups across the country and we are incredibly grateful to all the MPs who supported this amendment.
“At long last, everyone will have the right to access vital reproductive healthcare with safety, dignity, and privacy, no matter where in the country they happen to live.”
Whilst MPs in the House of Commons voted in favour of abortion clinic buffer zones, this won’t be implemented until the House of Lords has voted for it too. It is currently progressing through the House of Lords.
October 2022: The UK government announces that it will commission abortion services in Northern Ireland
On 25th October, the UK Government announced that it would commission abortion services in Northern Ireland. Despite abortion being decriminalised in Northern Ireland in 2019, access to abortion care remains limited across the country, meaning that women and pregnant people are often forced to travel to England and Wales to access this essential healthcare service.
Whilst we have been proud to support those travelling from Northern Ireland, this journey should never be necessary.
Now, as Louise McCudden explains: “The government must turn this commitment into access with adequate funding and accurate, non-stigmatising information about accessing reproductive healthcare in Northern Ireland.”
December 2022: The UK Supreme Court rules in favour of abortion clinic buffer zones in Northern Ireland
On 7th December 2022, the UK supreme court ruled that a bill to ban anti-choice protests outside Northern Ireland abortion clinics is ‘lawful’ and does not ‘disproportionately interfere’ with protestors’ rights.
This judgement means that the Northern Ireland Assembly can legislate to create buffer zones around abortion clinics, protecting those accessing and providing services from anti-choice harassment.
Northern Ireland is the first part of the UK to bring such legislation into place, as we await abortion clinic buffer zones being implemented across England and Wales.
As Jonathan Lord, UK Medical Director at MSI UK, said:
“For far too long those in need of abortion care, their families and our team members have been subjected to unacceptable harassment and intimidation. Whether silent or vocal, solitary or in groups, this behaviour can be deeply distressing, especially for the most vulnerable.
“We are delighted for our partners and allies in Northern Ireland and look forward to quick action in Scotland, England and Wales to enable everybody in the UK to access the healthcare they need without fear of intimidation, bullying and harassment.”
Fighting for reproductive rights in 2023 and beyond
The decriminalisation of abortion care in Great Britain
In 2023 and beyond, we will continue to fight for reproductive justice for all. Whilst we have seen incredible progress on abortion access and rights in the UK this year, the devastating news from the US should serve as a reminder that we in the UK can never take reproductive rights for granted until abortion is treated like all other healthcare. That is why in 2023, we are calling for the decriminalisation of abortion care in Great Britain.
Currently, in Great Britain, abortion is only legal if two doctors are satisfied that specific conditions are met (in Northern Ireland, abortion is decriminalised, and available unconditionally up to 12 weeks). There is no clinical reason for this; it is a consequence of abortion being part of the criminal code.
We believe that across the whole of the UK, abortion should sit outside criminal law.
While the common interpretation of the current law does allow most people who want an abortion to get one, the law makes getting an abortion more difficult, and more stigmatised, than it needs to be. The law forces everyone to seek the approval of not just one, but two doctors. Although abortion providers like MSI UK can arrange this for the person accessing care, keeping their pathway as simple as possible, the very fact that we require the approval of two doctors reinforces the outdated idea that women don’t know what is best for our own bodies, and that we need permission from an outside party before we can make our own reproductive decisions.
Abortion is one of the most heavily regulated areas of healthcare, despite being a common, safe procedure. Decriminalisation does not mean the regulations which control supply or provision of abortion would need to change. It means recognising that it is not in the public interest to prosecute people for ending their own pregnancies, or to prosecute clinicians for acting in the best interests of those they treat.
Abortion is a personal choice, and it is a medical service. Criminal law has no part to play in assessing who should or should not be denied access. At MSI Reproductive Choices, we believe that across the whole of the UK, abortion should be removed from criminal law altogether, and regulated simply as healthcare.
Commissioning and payment of abortion services
We will also be advocating for fair, responsible commissioning of abortion care in England. MSI UK is a non-profit provider and relies upon its charitable funds to deliver the high quality care that women and others seeking abortion deserve. However, as demand rises and NHS pressures increase, funding levels will not be sustainable over the long term. In 2023, changes to the way the service is commissioned will be essential for services to remain sustainable, and for people to get the care they are entitled to expect.
Access to contraception
In England, around half of all pregnancies are unintended or ambivalent. A major cause of this is a lack of access to contraception, especially in the poorest parts of the country. The government has now published its Women’s Health Strategy, which MSI UK welcomes as a promising start in addressing some of these issues. But there is far, far more to do if people across the country, especially the most marginalised, are to access the contraception they deserve in ways that truly meet their needs. In 2023, we will be advocating together with others across the health sector for serious action towards meeting the goal set out in the FSRH’s Hatfield Vision which is that “by 2030, reproductive health inequalities will have significantly improved for all women and girls, enabling them to live well and pursue their ambitions in every aspect of their lives.”
Misinformation and the right to equal access to sexual and reproductive healthcare
Misinformation about Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) is extremely dangerous. It can be harmful to anyone, but particularly so for the most marginalised and vulnerable people. In 2023, MSI UK will be looking at ways to tackle this growing issue on many fronts, from improving digital access, to supporting better information online and through other channels, to engaging new voices in open discussion in the spaces where it is needed the most.
To read more about at-home abortion services, click on the links below:
To read more about abortion clinic buffer zones, click on the links below:
- MSI UK comment on UK government vote in favour of abortion clinic buffer zones in England and Wales
- Will there ever be abortion clinic buffer zones?
- Why we advocate for national legislation on abortion clinic buffer zones
To read more about the rollback of abortion rights in the US, click on the links below:
- MSI UK comment on the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v Wade
- Abortion is legal in England, but the rollback of US abortion rights will be felt worldwide
To read more about the decriminalisation of abortion care in Great Britain, click on the links below: