13th June 1996
Guernsey voted to legalise local abortions
Abortion was illegal in Guernsey until 1996. It had been outlawed in 1910 under the Loi sur L’Acortement, though which any woman convicted of killing her unborn child faced life in prison – in theory. However, the reality of the situation was somewhat different.
In practice, women who wanted an abortion simply travelled to the mainland for the operation and, when they returned, no action would be taken. The BBC reported that up to 150 women a year made the journey. Recognising the futility of this arrangement, the States debated changing the law and voted overwhelmingly to do so. Abortion was legalised on 13 June 1996.
When the change came into effect on 18 March the following year, any woman could abort a foetus of up to 12 or 24 weeks depending on the reason for the termination.
The relevant clause that effected the change was clause 3 of The Abortion (Guernsey) Law 1997, which states:
…a person shall not be guilty of an offence… when a pregnancy is terminated by a recognised medical practitioner if two recognised medical practitioners are of the opinion… (a) that the termination is immediately necessary to save the life of the pregnant woman, (b) that the termination is necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman, (c) that the pregnancy has not exceeded its twenty-fourth week and that, at the time of the diagnosis, 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, or (d) that the pregnancy has not exceeded its twelfth week and that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family.
Recognising that some medical practitioners might have a moral objection to performing an abortion, the law made provision for them to refuse on conscientions grounds. The only way in which they could be forced to perform the operation would be if it was necessary to save the life of the mother.
An amendment to existing legislation
The law that this repealed, the Loi sur L’Avortement, had been voted on almost exactly 86 years before. It had been debated and passed in the States of Deliberation on 15 June 1910. Not only did this Loi allow for life imprisonment; it also made provision for solitary confinement and forced labour.
In 1910, Guernsey’s laws were still written in French. The original text stated,
Toute femme, étant enceinte, qui avec l’intention de se procurer un avortement, administera illégalement à elle-même aucun poison, breuvage, ailment, médicament ou autre chose nuisible ou se fera aucune violence, ou qui se servira illégalement d’aucun instrument ou autre moyen quelconque avec la même intention, et toute personne qui, avec l’intention du causer ou procurer un avortement à aucune femme, qu’elle soit enceinte ou non, lui administrera ou lui fera prendre illégalement aucun poison ou autre chose nuisible, ou qui se servira illégalement d’aucun instrument ou autre moyen quelconque avec la même intention, sera coupable de félonie, et étant trouvée coupable sera passible, à discrétion de justice, à être contamnée à la Servitude Pénale, pour sa vie ou pous aucun autre terme de pas moins de trois ans, ou à être envoyée en prison pour un terme n’excédant pas deux ans, avec ou sans travail forcé, et avec ou sans emprisonnement au secret.
This translates to,
Every woman, being pregnant, who with the intention of procuring an abortion, will unlawfully administer to herself any poison, garment, drug or other thing harmful or will be done without violence, or who will illegally use any instrument or any other means whatsoever for the same purpose, and any person who, with the intention of causing or procuring an abortion to any woman, whether pregnant or not, shall administer to her or cause her to unlawfully take any poison or other harmful thing, or who will unlawfully use any instrument or other means whatsoever with the same intention, shall be guilty of felony, and being found guilty shall be liable, at the discretion of justice, to be committed to Penal Servitude, for his life or any other term of not less than three years, or to be sent to prison for a term not exceeding two years, with or without forced labor, and with or without solitary detention.
Nothing in this post constitutes legal advice. Independent legal advice should always be sought. Note that laws change over time.
FREE Guernsey history newsletter
Don't miss our weekly update on Guernsey's fascinating history. We promise never to sell your data to anyone else, and there's a super-easy unsubscribe link on the bottom of each email so you can leave whenever you want.