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Reproductive rights

Maternity leave

The UK Equality and Human Rights Commission estimates that 30,000 women lose their jobs because of pregnancy every year. However, this is illegal and women are entitled to maternity leave. From April 2003, most mothers are entitled to 26 weeks’ paid maternity leave and an additional 26 weeks’ unpaid leave. To get maternity pay, we must earn over £77 per week and have been working for over 6 months by the time the baby is 15 weeks from being due. For the first 6 weeks, this should be 90% of average earnings, then a flat rate of £100 for 20 weeks. If pay can’t be claimed, Maternity Allowance may be claimed from the DSS. Fathers/male partners get 2 weeks’ paid paternity leave (subject to the same qualifying conditions as for maternity).

Access to birth control and abortion

The contraceptive pill is available on prescription from your GP. Emergency contraception in the form of the ‘morning after pill’ is also available from your GP, medics at family planning centres and doctors at university/college health centres. According to the national pro-choice campaign Abortion Rights, the current law on abortion is based on:

  • Abortion Act (1967)
  • Section 37 of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (1990)

Abortion is allowed up to 24 weeks on condition that continuing with the pregnancy involves a greater risk to:

  • the physical or mental health of the woman, or
  • the physical or mental health of the woman’s existing children than having a termination.

When establishing the level of risk to health, doctors can take into consideration a woman’s ‘actual or reasonably foreseeable environment’, which includes her personal and social situation. Abortion is also allowed if there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would ‘suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped’.

Abortion is allowed after 24 weeks if there is:

  • risk to the life of the woman,
  • evidence of severe fetal abnormality, or
  • risk of grave physical and mental injury to the woman.

An abortion must be:

  • agreed by two doctors (one in an emergency) and
  • carried out by a doctor, and
  • carried out in a government-approved hospital or clinic.

The 1967 Abortion Act only applies to England, Scotland and Wales. In recent years Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man have all introduced their own legislation; some of this is more liberal than that on the mainland. However, in Northern Ireland abortion can only be obtained if the woman’s life is at risk and in some cases of fetal abnormality.

Most doctors are pro-choice, however approximately 10% oppose abortion. According to their professional guidelines, they should treat a woman who is seeking an abortion with dignity and respect and refer her immediately to another health care provider. They are, however, not legally obliged to do so.

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