SWARM welcomes a vote by BMA junior doctors at their conference on 13th May to support the decriminalisation of sex work. The motion was passed by an overwhelming majority (debate from 2:34:31), meaning UK junior doctors now stand solidly in agreement with organisations like the World Health Organisation (WHO), UNAIDS, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health and Amnesty International, and will be calling on the BMA to publicly announce support for decriminalisation and to lobby the government towards this end. This follows a similar vote in favour of decriminalisation at the BMA medical students conference in April (debate from 2:07:17). This motion has also been proposed at the annual representative meeting (ARM) of the BMA, being held from the 25-29th June in Bournemouth. We need YOUR help to get it passed!
The motion passed at the medical students and junior doctors conferences was written in collaboration with peer-led sex worker organisations including SWARM, SCOT-PEP and the English Collective of Prostitutes. It recognises the evidence that full decriminalisation of sex work, as adopted by New Zealand, has resulted in public health benefits for both sex workers and wider society. These benefits include improved sexual health, personal safety and access to justice for sex workers and more action against human trafficking and exploitative working conditions. The motion also proposes that educational resources be created to enable doctors and medical students to respond to the healthcare needs of sex workers.
Junior doctor Khalil Secker, who brought the motion, told SWARM: “It was a great to get the policy passed by such an overwhelming majority at both the medical students conference and the junior doctors conference. I spoke to several people after the vote on both occasions who said they'd initially been against it, but had been swayed by the evidence-based harm reduction approach that we were arguing for.” Junior doctor Thomas Sissons told SWARM: “It’ll be interesting to see what happens at the main conference. I’d expect more debate, but being passed by the medical student conference and then us builds a lot of momentum and, clearly, it’s only a matter of time before this becomes BMA policy. Recent article series in very high profile journals about sex work, notably the Lancet and the BMJ have no doubt contributed to this change. I think it shows a triumph for evidence based medicine in deciding policy."
The role of legislation in preventing sex workers accessing healthcare is well documented. WHO guidelines recommend that countries work towards decriminalisation, as does UNAIDS, which points out that: “Punitive environments have been shown to limit the availability, access and uptake of HIV prevention, treatment, care and support for sex workers and their clients.”
In the UK, prostitution is currently ‘partially’ criminalised. This means that buying and selling sex is itself legal, but sex workers are still criminalised through bans on soliciting outdoors and working collectively. It is also illegal to employ sex workers, which simply means that brothels operate ‘underground’, without any healthcare provision or oversight of working conditions. In contrast, decriminalisation under the New Zealand model encourages sex workers to set up their own collective workplaces, taking power away from brothel bosses. Wider legislative and social change is needed to address the stigma, exploitative working conditions and inadequate healthcare provision that puts sex workers at risk, but decriminalisation will be a step towards addressing these injustices.
What can doctors do to help?
This motion will have a much bigger impact if it is passed at the ARM, which would make it the official policy of the entire BMA. It could have a big impact on government policy if the official voice of doctors in the UK stood up for decriminalisation! If you’re a member of the BMA, you should contact your representative, or anyone you know who's attending the conference, asking them to support this motion. Even better, if you are eligible to attend the conference, go and support it yourself!
Despite this motion passing by big majorities at both the medical students and junior doctors conferences, you should be aware that the agenda committee of the BMA has decided not to include it in the main agenda for the ARM. However, this does not mean the motion cannot be passed this year - delegates can still vote to have it included in the main agenda and debated. Please have this in mind when contacting your BMA representative, as they might not even be aware the motion has been proposed!