SWARM welcomes a vote by BMA junior doctors to support the decriminalisation of sex work. At Saturday’s conference in London, a motion calling for decriminalisation passed by a large margin, meaning junior doctors now stand in agreement with organisations like the World Health Organisation (WHO), UNAIDS, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health and Amnesty International.
The motion recognises 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 – in particular by improving sexual health, personal safety and by tackling human trafficking. The support follows a similar vote at the BMA medical students conference in April.
Junior doctors will be calling on the BMA to publicly announce support for decriminalisation and to lobby the government towards this end.
The motion also suggests that educational resources be created to enable doctors and medical students to respond to the healthcare needs of sex workers. Peer-led sex worker organisations such as SCOT-Pep, the English Collective of Prostitutes and the SWARM Collective should be consulted in the development of these materials.
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.”
On the broad support for decriminalisation, junior doctor Thomas Sissons told SWARM:
“I think this likely reflects both a larger shift in doctors’ opinions on harm reduction and paternalism and the demographics of the Junior Doctor’s Conference – which is mostly people aged 25-40. 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, stating: “Evidence indicates that where sex workers are able to negotiate safer sex, HIV risk and vulnerability can be sharply reduced.”
UNAIDS likewise supports decriminalisation, pointing out that: “Stigma and discrimination, violence and punitive legal and social environments are key determinants of increased HIV vulnerability. 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.”
Partial criminalisation and stigma mean UK sex workers are already vulnerable to healthcare inequalities. This is exacerbated for some groups, such as drug users and undocumented migrant workers, who face barrier after barrier to accessing services. Wider legislative and social change is needed, but decriminalisation will be a step towards addressing life-threatening health injustices.
Healthcare equality is a cornerstone of human rights and SWARM thanks junior doctors for recognising that, for sex workers, this can only be delivered through a legal framework in which sex work is no longer a criminal activity.