The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists voted Sept. 22 to call upon the British Parliament to rescind sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Persons Act (1861) which required women seeking an abortion to obtain the approval of two doctors. Women who did not do so and the procuring doctor was liable to a life sentence.
The move is considered symbolic because the Abortion Act (1967) legalized abortion up to 24 weeks gestation. The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children said although the law requires medical reasons for abortions, it is effectively available on demand and there is little oversight to ensure the limits are adhered to.
The RCOG represents 11,500 obstetricians and gynaecologists, but only 33 members of the body’s general counsel voted in secret on the motion which said: “The RCOG supports the removal of criminal sanctions associated with abortion in the UK.” The college said abortion “should be subject to regulatory and professional standards … rather than criminal sanctions.”
More than 650 doctors signed an open letter to college president Lesley Regan protesting consideration of the motion. In the letter, titled, “Don’t Speak for Me,” the protesters said: “It is completely unacceptable that all members of the RCOG have not been given the opportunity to vote on this significant change in policy and you have refused to release the wording of the motion until after the General Council have voted on this motion.” They said the move to “radical abortion” activism was “being promoted by a small group of campaigners with extreme views on abortion.”
Ahead of the vote, Regan likened abortion to “getting your bunions sorted,” a comment Anthony McCarthy, education and communications director for SPUC, called “medically cretinous.”
McCarthy said in a statement that the RCOG “betrayed its members, women, and their babies, and the medical profession” by calling for the decriminalization of abortion. The college, he said, “betrayed Hippocratic principles and opened the door to a … deregulated abortion industry.”
Max Pemberton, a Daily Mail columnist and doctor who has committed abortions himself, condemned Regan’s comments and the college’s motion. He said they were making abortion “appear quick, simple and harmless when they are not.”
The RCOG is the latest British medical body to support abortion. In June, the British Medical Association of doctors supported complete decriminalization, the first time the body has done so. In February 2016, the Royal College of Midwives, similarly called for rescinding criminal abortion laws. Regan said the RCOG wanted to express its support for decriminalization before the 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act on Oct. 27.