Heightened sense A critical view of drug laws in the UK and worldwide


Drugs and unwanted pregnancy

Hospitals are cleaner than backalleys. Credit: Michal Koralewski

Abortion was legalised to reduce harm. Why not drugs?

Across the water, the Republican primaries continue. The names and faces change, but you can virtually guarantee that one thing will stay the same: that they will all take a position of what they term “pro life”, but which really means “anti abortion”.

DIY terminations may have been increasing over in the US recently, probably in reaction to increasingly tight restrictions that stay just the right side of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that interprets the constitution as providing a right to abortion and prevents legislators from passing laws that ban it.

If the Grand Old Party (and doesn’t that sound ironically camp?) were to get their way and overturn the ruling, dangerous backstreet abortions would likely become a lot more common.

It’s precisely this problem that the legalisation of abortion in England and Wales in 1967 was aimed at tackling. According to the Telegraph’s obituary, the goal of Sir John Peel, the then-President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, “was to reduce the amount of disease and death associated with illegal abortion”.

Accurate figures for the level of death and disease are hard to come by. The Home Office reportedly estimated that in 1966 there were 100,000 illegal abortions carried out in the UK and around 40 resulting deaths. Now there are up to 190,000 legal, safe abortions and a smattering of illegal ones – educated guesses are around a few hundred per decade.

So English law has, for the past 45 years, accepted that making something illegal doesn’t make it go away, and that appropriate regulation can effectively reduce harm. But that principle is not applied universally, and the complexities of recreational pharmacology are still abdicated to amateurs.

This paper in the Annual Review of Law and Social Science suggests that “legalization will probably reduce average harm per use but increase total consumption”. The trick, then, is formulating a regulatory regime that ensures that the reduction in the harm per user outweighs the increase in use, so that total harm decreases.

Proper dosage- and quality-control just might prevent deaths such as that of this young man. If intravenous use is well supervised, that can reduce bloode-borne infections and limit the chances of accidental poisoning. Whatever the type of needle involved, the fatalities caused in each case are equally needless.

Posted by Christopher White