This site is intended for health professionals only

RCN consults on decriminalisation of abortion

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is launching a UK-wide nurse survey on the principle of removing criminal sanctions from termination of pregnancy.

The online survey will help the RCN to form a position on decriminalisation 'in the midst of a growing national debate'.

Currently, abortion is legal in England, Scotland and Wales, within certain criteria that must be agreed by two doctors. Without this agreement, termination is a criminal offence, which could result in a prison sentence.

In Northern Ireland, termination of pregnancy is illegal except in very limited cases.

There are different ways in which termination of pregnancy could be decriminalised, however, the survey only focuses on the principle of whether or not it should be removed from criminal law.

The RCN is not consulting on the wider issues of termination of pregnancy, including the arguments for or against the procedure, nor is it calling for any change to gestational limits or change to the right to conscientious objection by health care professionals.

At present, the RCN has no official position on decriminalistion of termination of pregnancy.

Janet Davies, chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, said: 'Decriminalisation is an important issue for today’s society to consider and one the College is committed to having a position on.

'As the largest nursing organisation in the United Kingdom, we wish to understand the views of our members.

'I encourage all RCN members to complete the survey to help us inform our position.'

The nursing union produced a briefing paper for members, which explains the issue in more detail.

The briefing includes a list of key arguments for and against decriminalisation taken from a discussion paper in the BMA.

While the list 'provides useful information of the arguments on either side of the debate, please note this is not an exhaustive list,' the briefing said.

Arguments in favour of decriminalisation
  • Changes in societal views and attitudes
  • Changes in clinical practice
  • Autonomy
  • Removing unacceptable stigma
  • Risks to healthcare professionals
  • Safer provision of termination
  • Giving women the time to make the right decision
  • Preventing unsupervised terminations
  • Criminalising women in ‘hard’ cases is the wrong response
  • Appropriate accountability 

Arguments against decriminalisation

  • Decriminalisation is unnecessary – legislation for ‘lawful’ termination should be reformed
  • The moral status of the foetus
  • ‘Hard’ cases would be better dealt with through specific prosecutorial guidance
  • The need for effective deterrents
  • Unsafe termination
  • Insufficient accountability
  • A good compromise
  • More restrictive access in reality
  • Termination as an alternative to contraception

Source: Decriminalisation of abortion: a discussion paper from the BMA, 2017