The Isle of Man is set to radically change women’s reproductive rights by decriminalising abortion in a “major step forward”, the doctor spearheading the reform said.
The Abortion Reform Bill consultation received the most responses ever on the island, a self-governing crown dependency where abortion is only legal in very limited circumstances.
More than 3,600 individuals and groups gave input, including one respondent who said she was filling out the form on behalf of her grandmother, who died as a result of a botched back-street abortion.
Its aim is to take abortion “out of the realm of the criminal justice system” and make it available “on request” to women in a broad range of circumstances, according to Alex Allinson, the politician elected after placing the issue at the centre of his manifesto.
The former GP said decriminalising abortion would free up midwives from “not constantly having to look over their shoulder”, allowing them to “look forward and provide decent services”.
It would make Manx abortion law more progressive than England and Wales, where abortion is legal on a wide range of grounds but not decriminalised entirely, he said, and “will hopefully lead the way” with regard to the Irish referendum and other countries considering reform.
He said: “What we’re doing is making it legal and firmly putting it in terms of women’s healthcare. And I think that’s very, very important, that women are actually empowered to be part of the system that supplies their healthcare.
“This is the first move to break down some of the stigma about abortion, to try to get rid of the shame some women feel, either making the decision or afterwards, which can affect their mental health, so it’s more than symbolism, this is a really positive step forward.”
The legislation will allow abortion up to 14 weeks on request, up to 24 weeks in cases of foetal anomaly or serious social reasons, and after 24 weeks in rare circumstances where the life of the mother or baby is at risk.
Counselling must be offered before and after the procedure, and a clause allows medical professionals to not deliver treatment if it clashes with their personal views.
Last week, draft legislation was agreed on “access zones” where patients would be prevented from “pavement interference” or harassment outside abortion providers.
The Bill is due for its third reading in Tynwald, the island’s parliament, on Tuesday. If then passed by its legislative chamber, it will go to the Queen for royal assent before coming into law later this year.
Fewer than 10 abortions are carried out on the island each year, while around 100 women travel to the UK for private abortions annually.
The Press Association was told about one young woman who opted for a medical procedure in Liverpool, and began haemorrhaging on the journey back.
Some women were too scared to tell doctors they had taken abortion pills ordered from the internet, instead claiming spontaneous miscarriages.
Dr Allinson said reading the women’s submissions was “humbling” and he had “tears in my eyes a number of times”.
Sarah, not her real name, was forced to leave the island for an abortion after being brutally beaten by her ex-partner.
She told PA she was cautiously optimistic, but feared some politicians may try to “take the guts out of the Bill”.
She said: “It will certainly be an incredibly positive day for the Isle of Man and local women, and it’s way, way, way beyond the time when it should have happened, but I will be delighted, absolutely delighted.”
Anti-abortion protesters, who appear to be in a minority on the island, have made their opposition to the proposed law change clear by demonstrating with graphic images outside Parliament to “inform and educate the public about the humanity of the unborn child”.
Dr Jules Gomes, part of the group who describes himself as “passionately pro-free speech”, said: “We want people to see the inhumanity of killing a human being using some of the most brutal and cruel methods in its mother’s womb.”
Stephanie Kelsey, from the island’s Campaign for Abortion Law Modernisation (Calm), said she hoped the new Bill would be “held up as an example of progressive, yet caring legislation that other countries could copy”.
She said: “I think it will be a really proud moment for the Isle of Man and for me personally for a Manx woman, to be able to change something which has affected so many women negatively up until now, and which could really change women’s lives and also women’s perception of how the Isle of Man cares for them and feels about them.”