What is abortion?
Abortion describes the medical procedure for the premature termination of pregnancy.
Abortion procedures change according to the gestation (stage) of the pregnancy. The gestation is measured in weeks counting from the first day of a woman’s last menstrual period. These methods range from the administration of drugs at early stages, through to ‘vacuum aspiration’ and medical induction at the latter stages of the pregnancy.
Abortion is legal in the United Kingdom. However, it must be carried out in an authorised environment, and only after the certification of two registered medical practitioners, except in certain emergencies.
Abortion – Legal history
The legal status of abortion has shifted considerably with social values. In the 18th Century, English common law allowed abortion, provided it was carried out before the mother felt the foetus move (‘quickening’).
The Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 made abortion a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment from three years to life. This was reversed by the Infant Life Preservation Act of 1929, which amended the law so that abortion would no longer be regarded as a criminal offence if it were proven to be carried out in “good faith for the sole purpose of preserving the life of the mother”.
Legal Changes: 1967 to 2000
In October 1967, the Abortion Act 1967 was passed. Introduced by the Liberal MP David Steel and supported by the government under a free vote. It legalised abortion on certain grounds, by legalised practitioners, in England, Wales and Scotland. The act came into effect on 27 April 1968.
In November 1990, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill lowered the gestation limit for abortions from 28 weeks to 24 weeks. This is the currently accepted point at which the fetus is considered viable outside the mother’s body. The Act came into effect on 1 April 1991.
Recent Years – 2015-
In June 2017, a Northern Ireland funding scheme was introduced, to provide funded abortions in England and Wales, for residents of Northern Ireland. In cases of hardship, travel costs were also covered. Funding is provided by the Government Equalities Office and HM Treasury.
From October 2017 in Scotland, from June 2018 in Wales, and from December 2018 in England, women can take the second of the two abortion pills, misoprostol, at home.
In December 2018, abortion was legalised for the first time on certain grounds, in the Irish Republic, up to 12 weeks gestation and later if the woman’s life or health is at risk.
In October 2019, abortion in Northern Ireland was decriminalised after a free vote by Westminster MPs in July that year. The suspended Northern Ireland Executive did not return by 21 October 2019, meaning the amendment introduced by Stella Creasy MP was passed into law through The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 on 22 October 2019. In March 2020, the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020 came into force on 31 March 2020. The regulations introduce a new legal framework for abortion services in Northern Ireland.
There is much controversy surrounding abortion. The debate may be simplified by dividing it into the opinions of those who support women’s rights to abortion, who are called ‘pro-choice’, and those who oppose it, who are called ‘pro-life’.
‘Pro-choice’ proponents centre their concerns on the rights of the woman. They argue that moves to abolish the right of pregnant mothers to opt for abortion are paternalistic and deny women control over their own bodies. They argue further that abortion is a permanent feature of society, thus the practical result of a ban would merely be to remove clinical guidelines from abortion and push it underground, placing women at serious risk.
‘Pro-life’ proponents focus the debate on the rights of the unborn child. To a greater or lesser degree, the pro-life party believes that life – as protected by the right to life – begins at conception.
In other countries, the debate is far more intense than in the UK: in the US, doctors prepared to carry out abortions have been attacked and even murdered by pro-life campaigners.
Between the positions at either end of the spectrum, there is a range of ethical, political and medical debate about how easy access to abortion should be, which interests and factors should prevail over others, and how late terminations may be carried out.
In recent years the issue of viability has been pushed to the forefront of debate. Advances in ultrasound technology have produced highly detailed images of foetuses in gestation. Most scientists argue we know nothing new or compelling about the development of foetuses, and therefore have no objective grounds to reducing the abortion time limit. However, for anti abortion campaigners, the pictures provide an emotional argument for the rights of the foetus, appearing to show foetuses smiling or ‘walking’ in the womb.
Abortion on demand
British legislation does not allow for abortion on demand but requires the consent of two doctors. In 2007 the British Medical Association voted it should be treated as any other medical treatments and offered on the basis of the patient’s informed consent.
In autumn 2007 a review of the Abortion Act 1967 by the House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee re-opened the debate. MPs recommended dropping the requirement for two doctors’ signatures, dismissing the precaution in safety terms.
The following year amendments were tabled during the final Commons debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill which would have allowed one doctor to sanction an abortion, thereby ending the two signature rule. The amendments would also have allowed nurses to perform abortions and would have legalised abortions in Northern Ireland.
Initially MPs were to be allowed a free vote on the amendments. However, at the last minute Gordon Brown, instructed Leader of the Commons, Harriet Harman, to put forward a motion which effectively prevented the amendments from being voted upon and so the changes were not introduced. An earlier amendment to the bill, supported by Conservative leader David Cameron, which would have reduced the 24 week abortion time limit was also defeated by the government.
There were 207,384 abortions for women resident in England and Wales, the highest number since the Abortion Act was introduced. [Source – 2019 – Abortion Statistics, England and Wales]
The age standardised abortion rate for residents is 18.0 per1,000 women. [Source – 2019 – Abortion Statistics, England and Wales]
99% of abortions in England & Wales were funded by the NHS in 2019, with 74% of all abortions taking place in the independent sector. [Source – 2019 – Abortion Statistics, England and Wales]
86% of those polled believed women should have the right to an abortion. The figures were 82% between those aged 18-24 and 88% amongst those aged over 65. [Source YouGov, Feb 2021]
45% of those surveyed believed the abortion rate should remain at 24 weeks. 28% believed it should be reduced below 24 weeks. 7% believed it should be increased above 24 weeks. [Source YouGov, Feb 2021]
“If a woman feels that an abortion is in her or her family’s best interests, then she should have access to safe, supportive and non-judgmental advice and help from an expert clinic. No one else should pressure her into either continuing with the pregnancy or having an abortion.” ― Marie Stopes International – 2010
“I’ve noticed that everyone who is for abortion has already been born.” ―
“No woman can call herself free who does not control her own body.” ―
“Your religion should help you make the decision if you find yourself in that situation, but the policy should exist for you to have the right to make it in the first place. When you say you can’t do something because your religion forbids it, that’s a good thing. When you say I can’t do something because your religion forbids it, that’s a problem.” ―