SCOTLAND is being urged to radically diverge from Westminster on abortion law and make it a health issue instead of criminal one.

A group of women’s rights organisations has come together to push for decriminalisation of abortion, in the wake of laws over it being devolved to Scotland in May this year.

A report, published tomorrow, will argue that the Scottish Government now has the opportunity to remove abortion from criminal law and regulate it like any other healthcare issue.

It argues the requirement for two doctors to approve an abortion, which is permitted for non-medical reasons up to 24 weeks under the current law, should be scrapped.

Emma Ritch, director of feminist organisation Engender, which led the report, said Scotland should look to the example of Canada, where there have been no laws governing abortion since 1988 – and therefore no time limits on when terminations can be carried out.

She said: “This is an opportunity for Scotland to do things slightly different and be dependent on the path that has been previously chartered by the Westminster Government.

“It does seem there is a very unique status given to abortion, in that it is the only type of healthcare in which this criminalisation exists. We would want to see decriminalisation happen so that abortion was regulated in the same way as any other type of healthcare.

“There is no real reason for us to have time limits at all. So we could have a situation like Canada does where there is no criminal law when it comes to abortion, there are no time limits, and they haven’t seen an increase substantially in the number of abortions that occur.”

A total of 12,082 terminations were carried out in Scotland in 2015, a rise of 306 (2.6 per cent) on the previous year.

At present, 80 per cent of terminations take place here before 12 weeks, and less than 0.1 per cent after 24 weeks – these are usually due to a serious foetal abnormality which could not be confirmed earlier.

Ritch added: “Women want to have abortions as early as possible and late abortion is a minute proportion of the number of abortions that happen, because usually a much-wanted pregnancy has resulted in a serious foetal abnormality or in possible devastating impacts to the life or health of the mother.

“It is certainly not something which happens on a whim.”

Earlier this year the Royal College of Midwives supported a campaign by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service to decriminalise abortion, saying it did not believe it was right that “in the 21st Century those women who choose to have an abortion can be criminalised.”

Ritch said if decriminalisation took place in Scotland, decisions about abortions would be reached by women discussing the issue with their doctors and would be regulated like any healthcare treatment.

She argued having the current laws and requirement for two doctors to approve the procedure presented potential barriers and delays for women facing the difficult situation of having a termination,

She also argued while groups opposed to abortion might find it “troubling” to see time limits removed, it would not have any impact on abortion rates.

“International evidence tells us criminalising abortion doesn’t reduce the number of abortions – it just punishes women and is more likely to damage women’s health,” she said.

“We are not looking at this with moral questions so much as providing women’s right to reproductive healthcare – which I’m not sure is the argument being made by those who might disagree with it.”

Ritch described the Abortion Act of 1967, which criminalised terminations performed outwith strict criteria, as being from a “different era”.

She said: “It is nearly 50 years old and from a time when husbands had to agree that their wives could access the birth control pill. I think Scotland has potentially over the coming years an opportunity to think about things quite differently.”

The report, which is backed by Amnesty Scotland, NUS Scotland, Scottish Women's Aid, Rape Crisis Scotland, Close the Gap and Zero Tolerance, also highlighted a number of key issues, including a lack of provision of abortions after around 16-20 weeks in Scotland, depending on where a woman lives.

Women who request an abortion after this time for non-medical reasons have to travel to England for the termination – which may be a particular issue for women who are pregnant as a result of rape.

The report says reasons for the lack of development of services in Scotland for later-term abortions are not clear but calls for the “postcode lottery” to end.

Sandy Brindley, national co-ordinator of Rape Crisis Scotland, said: “Access to safe abortion must be a fundamental right for all women. In Scotland, there are specific issues for women who are pregnant as a result of rape, particularly in relation to access to what is considered later term abortions, though still within the current legal time limit of 24 weeks.

“Along with other human rights focused organisations, we are calling on the Scottish Government to develop an approach to abortion in Scotland which more fully upholds women’s reproductive rights.”

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said: “The Scottish Government has no plans to change the law on abortion.”