The BMA and Decriminalisation of Abortion

Dr Rachael Pickering, a British GP working internationally, shares her thoughts on the BMA's recent adoption of a controversial measure calling for the decriminalisation of abortion in the UK.

Last week saw the annual highlight of the UK’s medical political world: the doctors’ professional organisation, the British Medical Association’s Annual Representative Meeting (BMA ARM) convened in Bournemouth for representatives to debate motions and vote in new policy.



Proceedings kicked off with a gracious speech by the outgoing Chair of Council who, perhaps foreseeing the flavour of the looming abortion debate, reflected on the BMA’s history of hostility towards Dr Elizabeth Garrett Anderson – sister of the Victorian suffragist Millicent Garrett Fawcett and famous herself for being the UK’s first female doctor; and he noted that, although it is nearing numerical gender equality, British medicine is still miles from actual equality. 


And then motion 50, a complex proposal containing various options for decriminalising abortion, came up for debate. I had already decided to request to speak: but what angle should my speech take?...

Considering matters as a Christian, I have come to believe that abortion is the taking of a human life – but I acknowledge that non-Christians do not have the same frame of reference and so I never use religious arguments when debating beginning-of-life ethical issues with non-Christian colleagues.

Putting on my GP with mental health expertise hat, I have encountered many women who have come to regret their abortions – and this professional experience is relevant to some debates.

But no. Instead, for this particular debate, I decided to speak from my Christian feminist heart – because I believe that the absolute decriminalisation of all aspects of abortion would remove the last (admittedly imperfect) safeguards from vulnerable women who are otherwise at the mercy of manipulative men, such as abusive partners and pimps; it would also endanger female babies conceived within misogynistic cultures.

And these dangers are not mere theoretical catastrophising: I saw men coercing women into ‘choosing’ abortions, during my years as an inner-city London GP; I see clear evidence of pimps obliging sex workers to have abortions, in my current role as a humanitarian GP in resource-poor countries; and we know that in Canada, where abortion is already decriminalised, some communities now have an eight to ten percent disparity between boys and girls, leading a prominent Canadian medical journal to describe the country as ‘a haven for parents who would terminate female foetuses in favour of having sons’.


So I got to speak and on a feminist ticket: the debate was robust with ten all-female speakers, five on each side, chosen from a long mixed-gender list. Sadly, in my opinion, the motion passed in all its parts, meaning that the BMA is now officially in favour of the full decriminalisation of all abortions for any reason. I expected this outcome but I’m still glad that I spoke up – even if just to remind folks of two things:-

Firstly, it’s quite possible to be both feminist and pro-life: it’s simply coming back full circle to what the early feminist leaders believed. In fact Christian feminists, who often feel uncomfortable within evangelical churches & organisations, can come in really handy when discussing this particular subject!

And secondly, feminists advocating for the full decriminalisation of abortion should pause to consider its potential as a weapon for misogynists to wield against womankind.


But why does it even matter what the BMA thinks about abortion? It’s not as if it changes British law, is it?! Well no but politicians are very sensitive to the BMA’s official stance on ethical issues. Just think back to 2005 when tremendous political leverage was made from the BMA briefly going neutral on physician assisted suicide; this led directly to the Joffe Bill which was defeated in June 2006. And shortly after this the BMA resumed its opposition to a change in the law; this has been a major factor in keeping all forms of euthanasia and assisted suicide illegal ever since.


Therefore we should fully expect this seismic beginning-of-life shift at BMA House to send substantial shock waves across to Westminster. So let’s continue to exercise our biblical mandate to advocate for vulnerable people, whether born or unborn. Pray, speak up… and watch this space!

by Rachael Pickering

The issue of abortion and crisis pregnancy more generally has been back in the news in the last few weeks. In the midst of the inflammatory language and virtue signalling from both sides of the debate it is sometimes difficult to have an adult conversation about the issue. This means for many of us, our understanding of such a complex subject is fairly superficial. Christians on the Left is curating the thoughts of some of our members and referencing some hopefully helpful background reading:

Whose Justice? by Heather Staff

Pro-Life for All of Life? by Rachel Burgin

Abortion and Devolution by Heather Wilson

The BMA and Decriminalisation of Abortion by Dr Rachael Pickering

Some detail from the medical profession: Reflections on the BMA Vote by Dr Peter Saunders [external link to Christian Medical Fellowship]

A theological article about the presumptions of both pro-life and pro-choice positions: Abortion and Our Attitude to the Foetus by Lee Gatiss [external link to The Theologian]

Here are also three articles from 2016 on the subject, following Professor Cathy Warwick and the Royal College of Midwives decision to back a decriminalisation campaign.

Surely We Can Agree on Some Things? by Jennie Pollock

Abortion is not Social Justice: A Northern Irish Perspective by Heather Wilson

We Must Speak Up for the Voiceless by Sunny Mandich

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