UK Abortion Law

What is the UK law on Abortion?   

Abortion is the medical termination of a pregnancy.  Current UK abortion law was clarified in the 1967 Abortion Act which remains the governing regulation.   The Act legalizes abortion, but only under specific regulations and under certain circumstances.  It was seen as the one of the most liberal abortion laws of its time.  Previously, abortion laws had been extremely strict. The Ellenborough Act 1803 for example carried the death penalty for an abortion taken place after 16-20 weeks when it was believed the soul entered the Foetus.

1967 Abortion Act

The act states that a termination may be carried out under the following circumstances: 

  • It is undergone in a specialized clinic by a ‘registered medical practitioner.’

  • Two doctors confirm the patients need for an abortion.  The need must fit under the following legal criteria:

  • The risk of continuing the pregnancy to the life of the pregnant woman is larger than the risk of terminating it

  • The permanent physical or mental state of the pregnant woman would be endangered if the pregnancy were not terminated

  • Injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman would be more likely with the continuation of the pregnancy.

  • Injury to the physical or mental health of any other children of the family would be more likely with the continuation of the pregnancy. 

  • Risk that the child would be born with a serious handicap. 

  • In an emergency to save the life of the woman or to prevent physical or mental injury of her. 

(when there is an emergency only the opinion of one doctor is necessary)

Doctors defining these circumstances can look at the “actual or reasonably foreseeable future environment” of the pregnant woman.

The Human Fertilization and Embryology Act (HFEA) 1990

Due to advancements in medical technology, certain amendments were made to the 1967 Act through Section 37 of the Human Fertilization and Embryology Act of 1990.    The main changes were

  • The legal time limit for abortion was reduced from 28 to 24 weeks.   This is now deemed to be the point where a fetus is seen as ‘viable.’

  • The act clarified further the regulations set out in the abortion Act.   All the regulations, apart from increased injury to the physical and mental health of the woman and the effect the continuation of the pregnancy would have on other children, are without time limit.

Consent

The mother is the only person who can request an abortion, and the opinion of the father is not taken into account.  Under specific circumstances, girls under the age of 16 do not need to obtain parental consent.  

Conscientious objectors

Some doctors, although a minority, disagree with abortion.   The Abortion Act therefore states that “…no person shall be under any duty…to participate in any treatment authorized by this Act to which he has a conscientious objection” making them exempt from taking action but requiring them to refer them to a different doctor.   

Jurisdiction

This Act only extends to England, Scotland and Wales, but does not extend to Northern Ireland, where the legality of abortion is more ambiguous. Many women therefore travel to other countries in the UK to carry out terminations.

Abortion Law in the UK remains a very controversial topic.  There have recently been requests by MPs to lower the legal time limit even further.