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Abortion Act 1967

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Abortion Act 1967

Abortion remains a contentious issue and is still illegal in many countries around the world. Although the UK has seen success in liberalising abortion legislation and providing abortion services, it was not until as recently as 1968 that abortion was made lawful, under specific circumstances. The Abortion Act of 1967 was an important milestone in women's health - let's have a look at the history of abortion law in the UK, what this act did, and how it's been amended over the years.

Trigger Warning: mentions of sexual assault

Abortion

The deliberate termination of a pregnancy

History of abortion law in the UK

Before abortion became accessible, women who needed an abortion faced a scary reality - undergo an unsafe 'backstreet' abortion which could be fatal, and face legal punishment if anyone found out; in the early 19th century, this punishment was the death penalty.

YearLaw
1803Lord Ellenborough Act
  • Abortion after 'quickening' (when the woman could feel the fetus move) became illegal and carried the death penalty.
  • Punishment could also be transportation - being relocated to a British colony.
1837Amendment of the Ellenborough Act
  • The death penalty for abortion was revoked.
  • The distinction between abortion before and after 'quickening' was removed - all abortion became illegal.
1861Offences Against the Person Act
  • Trying to self-abort or performing an abortion would lead to life imprisonment.
  • Supplying items to someone knowing they were intended to be used for abortion carried a prison sentence.
1929The Infant Life Act
  • It was made an offence to kill a "child" "capable of being born alive" - this referred to fetuses over 28 weeks - except when the woman's life was at risk.
  • It was unclear whether it would be legal to abort before 28 weeks if the woman's life was at risk.
1936The Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA) was formed.
1938Dr Alex Bourne was acquitted of performing an illegal abortion
  • Bourne performed an abortion for a girl who became pregnant after being sexually assaulted.
  • Bourne used the 1929 Infant Life Act as a defence, arguing that continuing with the pregnancy posed mental and physical risks for the girl, which could put her life at risk.
  • This set a precedent, and some women were able to take advantage of this case to get safe abortions if a psychiatrist agreed that the woman's life was in fact threatened.
1967The Abortion Act
  • The Act came into effect on 27th April 1968.
  • Abortion was legalised under several conditions.

Abortion law was desperately in need of liberalising by the time of the Abortion Act in 1967. Women were dying due to a lack of access to safe abortions, turning to unsafe backstreet abortions, or drugs which supposedly caused abortion - a cheap option contained lead, which poisoned many women.

Abortion Act 1967 summary: legalisation of abortion in the UK

The 1967 Abortion Act stated that:

a person shall not be guilty of an offence under the law relating to abortion when a pregnancy is terminated by a registered medical practitioner if two registered medical practitioners are of the opinion, formed in good faith—

  1. that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk to the life of the pregnant woman, or of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated; or
  2. that there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped. 1

The Abortion Act 1967 and the NHS

The Abortion Act specified that abortions must take place in NHS hospitals or other approved clinics. The NHS was also expected to provide accurate advice.

In the same year as the Abortion Act, the National Health Service Family Planning Act was passed. This act made contraception more available via local health services.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990

The Abortion Act was amended by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act in 1990. The changes allowed abortion on the following grounds:

  1. that the pregnancy has not exceeded its twenty-fourth week and that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family; or
  2. that the termination is necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman; or
  3. that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk to the life of the pregnant woman, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated; or
  4. that there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped. 2

Thus, the gestation period was limited to 24 weeks of pregnancy.

Analysing the criteria for abortion

“In good faith”

An opinion formed in good faith implies that the doctor has not been negligent in forming their opinion. If two doctors believe that abortion is more beneficial to a woman regarding her mental and physical health, the procedure is made legal.

If a woman asserts that she cannot afford to carry the pregnancy to term, the doctor is not under an obligation to check her financial situation.

“Risk to health”

Section 1 of the Abortion Act clearly states that an abortion is lawful if “the termination is necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman.” Many studies finalised that abortion carries a low risk of mortality as opposed to childbirth.

It can be argued that section 1 would always make abortion lawful, given that two doctors formed an opinion in good faith.

Social and financial factors

A doctor can authorise an abortion based on a woman’s social and financial situation. A woman can easily assert that she cannot afford to continue her pregnancy. Her social situation, such as housing, may also be taken into account.

Medical abortions

Most abortions are performed in the first trimester of pregnancy, causing a miscarriage by a combination of medications. Medical abortions employ mifepristone and misoprostol during the first ten weeks of pregnancy. Prior to 2018, women had to take both pills between 24 and 48 hours apart in a clinic to terminate their pregnancy, which seriously threatened both their autonomy and health.

In 2018, however, there was a significant change in the law. The government announced that women could take the second pill, misoprostol, either at home or in a clinic. Allowing women to take the second pill at home shortens the trips to a clinic and provides women with safe and familiar surroundings, where they can be cared for or supported.

Notably, during the COVID-19 crisis, the British government temporarily approved the use of both abortifacient drugs to terminate the pregnancy at home. Women up to ten weeks into their pregnancy can receive an early medical abortion at home after completing an online consultation with a clinician.

The other type of abortion offered is a surgical abortion - women are usually offered a choice.

Abortion laws as of 2021

So, what are the abortion laws in the UK today?

  • Although the 1967 Abortion Act was a significant step toward women's liberation in the UK, the control of women's bodies regarding pregnancy is still in the hands of medical professionals rather than the woman herself.
  • Northern Ireland followed the same stipulations as the Abortion Act in October 2019, creating unanimity across the UK regarding abortion for the first time. Prior to 2019, Northern Irish women would have to travel to England, Scotland or Wales to receive a legal abortion.
  • The Abortion Act permits the procedure under certain requirements, but this means that not every pregnant woman can have an abortion if they simply don't want a child. This means that technically abortion is not fully decriminalised in the UK even today.

The Abortion Act and reproductive autonomy

Reproductive autonomy allows women to have absolute control over important reproductive matters, such as deciding whether to stay pregnant, or whether to use contraception.

According to historian Sally Sheldon, although the Abortion Act was passed due to “advocacy on public health and equality grounds, liberalising the issue of abortion and consequently benefiting the British women”, reproductive autonomy was not placed at the heart of the Act. Sheldon points out that during the debates surrounding the bill that consequently became the Abortion Act, reformers stood firmly behind the idea that doctors were best equipped to decide whether an abortion was justified or not.

The 1967 Act dismissed the significance of reproductive autonomy, presenting the public with a medicalised interpretation of abortion instead. Currently, more doctors are having liberal attitudes toward abortion and more abortions are being carried out in the charitable sector, making abortions incredibly accessible. The Abortion Act 1967 creates a narrative of women needing paternalistic control. The requirement of the medical practitioners to act as gatekeepers diminishes women’s abilities to make autonomous decisions. Women need to justify the reason behind their decision to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. When looking at the bigger picture, the sole notion of criminalising abortion not only threatens reproductive autonomy but continues to perpetuate the stigma associated with abortion.

Abortion Act 1967 - Key takeaways

  • Abortion is not fully decriminalised in the UK as the Abortion Act of 1967 only allows a lawful abortion to take place under specific conditions.

  • Two doctors must form an opinion in good faith:

    • “that the pregnancy has not exceeded its twenty-fourth week and that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family”; or

    • “that the termination is necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman”; or

    • “that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk to the life of the pregnant woman, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated”; or
    • “that there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.
  • Thus, women’s physical and mental health are the circumstances under which a doctor can allow for an abortion. A doctor can also authorise an abortion based on a woman’s social and financial situation.

  • The Act stated that abortions must be carried out in an NHS hospital or a medical venue recognised by the Secretary of State.


1. https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1967/87/enacted?view=plain

2.https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1990/37/section/37

Frequently Asked Questions about Abortion Act 1967

The legalisation of abortion is when the law allows women to access safe abortions - this was not the case in the UK until 1967.

In 1920, the Soviet Union was the first country to legalise abortion on request. 

Abortion is lawful according to the criteria under the Abortion Act of 1967, as amended by the Human and Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. However, in other circumstances, procuring or administrating an abortion is illegal. Thus, abortion is not fully decriminalised. 

The 1967 Abortion Law legalised abortion in the UK under specific circumstances; this was amended in 1990. Abortion is still not fully decriminalised under any circumstances.

The Abortion Act 1967 says:


a person shall not be guilty of an offence under the law relating to abortion when a pregnancy is terminated by a registered medical practitioner if two registered medical practitioners are of the opinion, formed in good faith— 


  1. that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk to the life of the pregnant woman, or of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated; or
  2. that there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.

Final Abortion Act 1967 Quiz

Question

What legislation eradicated the death penalty if an illegal abortion took place? 

Show answer

Answer

The Offences Against the Person Act 1861

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Question

What legislation amended the Abortion Act 1967, allowing for the abortion to be carried out up to 24 weeks of gestation? 

Show answer

Answer

Human and Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990

Show question

Question

What is the current abortion law in the UK? 


Show answer

Answer

Abortion is not decriminalised in the UK. The Abortion Act of 1967 allows a lawful abortion to take place only under specific conditions. In other circumstances, procuring or administrating an abortion is illegal.

Show question

Question

What does an opinion formed in good faith mean? 


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Answer

An opinion formed in good faith implies that the doctor has not been negligent in forming their opinion. A doctor’s opinion that there are legitimate grounds for the procedure is what makes an abortion lawful.

Show question

Question

What factors are taken into consideration by the doctors when deciding whether to administer an abortion or not?


Show answer

Answer

Mental health, physical health, social environment, financial situation 

Show question

Question

What two pills are used to administer medical abortion? 


Show answer

Answer

Mifepristone

Show question

Question

Is this statement true or false? During the COVID-19 crisis, the British government has temporarily approved the use of both abortifacient drugs to terminate the pregnancy at home. 

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

What means that abortion is not fully decriminalised in the UK?

Show answer

Answer

Women are not given total reproductive autonomy. Two doctors must approve an abortion.

Show question

Question

When was abortion partially decriminalised in Northern Ireland?

Show answer

Answer

October 2019

Show question

Question

When was the National Health Service Family Planning Act passed, providing better access to contraception?

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Answer

1967

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