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What are the UK abortion laws?

What are the UK abortion laws?

It's estimated that around three in every 10 pregnancies worldwide end in abortion. It was announced in June 2022 that the US Supreme Court had voted to overturn Roe v Wade, which provided constitutional protections for abortion. This may leave you wondering what the abortion laws are in the UK. For the purpose of this article, a pregnant person includes women, cisgender women, non-binary and genderfluid people, intersex and transgender men.

A brief history of abortion rights in the UK

Prior to the decriminalisation of abortion in the UK, there were heated debates surrounding passing an abortion law, given the topic's nature and its history.

Why were abortion laws created?

In the 1800s, terminating a pregnancy carried the death penalty, which was later changed to life imprisonment. This often led to people turning to unsafe methods of abortion. According to Abortions Rights, from 1922-1933, 15% of maternal deaths were due to illegal abortion.

In the late 1930s, a doctor was acquitted for performing an illegal abortion after stating that he believed the woman's life to be at risk. As a result, some were then able to access safe abortions, but a psychiatrist's approval was needed, and it was usually only the wealthy who could afford this. Momentum to legalise abortion grew over the next few decades.

When was the abortion law passed?

Abortion in the UK has been legal since 27th October 1967, when Parliament passed the Abortion Act which was introduced by the politician David Steel. The act permits abortion on certain grounds by registered practitioners, with the added protection of free provision via the NHS.

The law legalised abortion up to 24 weeks of pregnancy in Great Britain, including Scotland and Wales, but not Northern Ireland.

Is abortion legal in Northern Ireland?

Abortion was only decriminalised in Northern Ireland in October 2019 and laws were updated in 2020. Terminations are now lawful unconditionally up to 11 weeks and six days, after this, they are only lawful if there are severe or fatal complications with the foetus. There has been much debate about the commissioning of services in Northern Ireland and to date, full commissioning has not taken place.

What are the criteria for a legal abortion?

Abortion up to 24 weeks

Most abortions in England, Wales, and Scotland are carried out before 24 weeks with permission from two registered doctors. In reality, most doctors leave a two-week margin for error and rarely go beyond 22 weeks. If a person is less than 10 weeks pregnant, they may be able to have a medical termination at home, rather than going to a hospital or clinic. After 10 weeks of pregnancy, a health professional or abortion provider can discuss options.

In order for an abortion to be legal, the medical practitioners must be acting in good faith - not negligent or dishonest when forming their opinion - and agree on one, or more, of the following grounds:

  • The pregnancy has not exceeded 24 weeks.
  • Termination is necessary to prevent permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant person or any existing children of their family.
  • There is a substantial risk that the child would have physical or mental abnormalities if they were to be born.

Abortion after 24 weeks

Terminations can be carried out after the 24-week time frame in limited circumstances - mainly if the pregnant person's life is at risk or their child would not be able to survive outside the parent's body.

Most abortion providers will request to perform an ultrasound prior to the termination, to work out how many weeks pregnant the person is. The length of pregnancy is generally calculated from the first day of the person's last period, but an ultrasound can give more accurate dates.

How is abortion accessed?

Who makes the decision?

Having an abortion should be entirely the choice of the pregnant individual, however, confidential, trustworthy support is available from GPs, counsellors, and specialist organisations. Some people may also confide in friends, family, and partners but, ultimately, it is their decision and theirs alone.

If a pregnant person is between the ages of 13-16 and seeking support for an abortion, they have the same rights of confidentiality as an adult. So, while doctors and nurses may encourage them to talk to a parent or guardian, they cannot force them to, provided they believe the person understands the information they are being given and the procedure involved. However, as the pregnant person is under the age of legal sexual consent, information may be divulged if there are any concerns of child abuse or criminal activity for the safety of that person or other vulnerable people who may be in danger.

For those under the age of 13, the situation is different as the law states they cannot consent to sexual activity. Therefore, a doctor might feel it's in the best interest of the patient to inform their carers, relatives, social services, or police if the child or other vulnerable people are in danger.

Prior to a termination, a person will have an appointment to talk through their decision and what the next steps will be.

What happens during an abortion?

There are two options for abortion and a pregnant person will be given a choice, so long as it is possible.

  1. Medical abortion - this involves taking two medicines, usually 24-48 hours apart, to induce an abortion.
  2. Surgical abortion - this is a surgical procedure to remove the pregnancy. It tends to be relatively quick and most patients can go home soon after.

What happens after an abortion?

After an abortion, it is advised that a patient rests up and avoids any strenuous activity for a few days. Most people recover quickly, but it's normal to have stomach pains and vaginal bleeding for a couple of weeks after the abortion. However, discomfort and bleeding can vary from person to person.

It's also common to experience nausea, vomiting, and tiredness for the first few days, as well as sore breasts. Paracetamol or ibuprofen can be taken to ease the pain.

In terms of support, post-abortion counselling is available, and a patient can be referred by their GP. This allows people a safe space to talk through their emotions as they process what their body has been through, while chatting to someone impartial who can offer advice.

Further reading:

  1. Abortion rights history in the UK.
  2. Further information on Britain's abortion law.
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