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Abortion law in the UK

Abortion is when someone chooses to end a pregnancy because they don’t want to have a baby.

It is more common than you might think and a third of women in the UK will have an abortion before they are 45.

There are different laws for abortion in England, Wales and Scotland, in Northern Ireland and in Jersey. Here we have summarised what those laws state.

If you need more information about what an abortion involves, you can read more on the abortion page. You can also use the Ask Brook 24/7 tool for more information. Ask Brook is confidential. That means we won’t tell anyone you’ve contacted us unless we think you are in really serious danger.

The law in England, Wales and Scotland

In England, Scotland and Wales, the legal grounds for abortion are set out in the 1967 Abortion Act. Abortion is legal if:

  • you are less than 24 weeks pregnant and;
  • two doctors agree that continuing the pregnancy and having a baby would be worse for your physical or mental health than ending the pregnancy by having an abortion.

Abortion is legal at any time in pregnancy (even after 24 weeks) if two doctors agree that there is a serious threat to the pregnant person’s health or life, or in cases of serious foetal disability.

In the event that an abortion must be performed as a matter of medical emergency a second doctor’s agreement does not need to be sought.

Since abortion is safer overall than giving birth, many doctors will agree that a request for abortion is legal, without needing to hear a person’s reasons. However, if a doctor morally disagrees with abortion they have a right not to get involved. A doctor who does not want to assist in this process does have a duty to help find another doctor who will. They should not share their personal beliefs about abortion with you, or make you feel judged for requesting abortion.

The number of weeks pregnant you are is calculated from the first day of your last period. It doesn't matter if you don't know exactly, a doctor will help you work it out. 

The law in Northern Ireland

Unfortunately, abortion is not legal in Northern Ireland except when there is a serious risk to mental or physical health and the risk is permanent or long term. This is outlined in the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013. The Act specifies the following criteria:

  1. Risk of loss of life from physical illness: two medical practitioners must have jointly certified in good faith that there is a real and substantial risk of loss of the woman’s life from a physical illness. In this instance, the abortion will have to be carried out at an appropriate institution.
  2. Risk of loss of life from physical illness sin emergency: in a medical emergency, a single physician must both provide the diagnosis and perform the termination if they believe in good faith that there is an immediate risk of loss of the pregnant woman’s life from physical illness.
  3. Risk of loss of life from suicide: three medical practitioners need to jointly certify that there is a real and substantial risk of loss of the woman’s life by way of suicide. Those medical practitioners must be: an obstetrician, a psychiatrist with experience treating women during or after pregnancy, and another psychiatrist. The termination would be an elective procedure performed at an appropriate institution.

The Abortion Act 1967 has never applied to Northern Ireland and so the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 still dictates Northern Ireland’s abortion law. This law makes it illegal to seek to terminate a pregnancy or help a woman terminate pregnancy except where it poses a serious long-term or permanent threat to the mental or physical health of the woman. This includes suicide. The maximum penalty is life imprisonment.

This means that most people in Northern Ireland cannot arrange to have an abortion there. However, there is the option of travelling to England, Scotland or Wales to have an abortion. People from Northern Ireland seeking abortion aren't entitled to NHS treatment and have to pay to have an abortion at a private clinic.

The overall cost of obtaining a termination for Northern Irish women, including travel, accommodation and the procedure, can be anything from £400 to around £2,000. 

There are increasing reports of women in Northern Ireland ordering the medication required for an early medical abortion online. But this also puts them at risk of a lengthy prison sentence.

If you are in Northern Ireland and need more information on travelling for an abortion, you will need to contact a private abortion service like Marie Stopes on 0345 300 3737 or the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) on 03457 30 40 30 if you're in the UK, +44 1789 416 569 from outside the UK.

You can also get confidential advice and counselling from the FPA in Northern Ireland by calling 0345 122 8687 or, if you are under 19, from the Brook service in Northern Ireland.

The law in Jersey

In Jersey it is legal to have an abortion if two doctors agree that one of the following applies:

  • The pregnancy is less than 12 weeks and is causing distress
  • The pregnancy is less than 24 weeks and the foetus is suffering from a severe incurable problem or abortion is necessary to protect the pregnant person’s life.

If you need more information on abortion, use the Ask Brook 24/7 tool or contact the Brook service in Jersey

The history of Britain's abortion law

The Offences Against The Person Act 1861

In 1861 Parliament passed the Offences Against The Person Act. Section 58 of the Act made abortion a criminal offence, punishable by imprisonment from three years to life even when performed for medical reasons. No further legal changes occurred in England until 1929. Two successive laws, the Infant Life Preservation Act 1929 and Abortion Act 1967 provide the exceptions to this 1861 Act.

The Infant Life Preservation Act 1929

In 1929 the Infant Life Preservation Act amended the law stating it would no longer be regarded as a felony if abortion was carried out in good faith for the sole purpose of preserving the life of the mother. The Act made it illegal to kill a child 'capable of being born live', and enshrined 28 weeks as the age at which a foetus must be presumed to be viable. Importantly the Act allowed a doctor to perform an abortion legally if he/she was 'satisfied that the continuance of the pregnancy was liable to endanger the health of the expectant mother'.

The Abortion Law Reform Association

In 1936 the Abortion Law Reform Association was formed by people who believed that abortion legislation was unsatisfactory. The Abortion Law Reform Association recommend that the law should be clarified, as the 1861 Act still on the statute books deemed abortion illegal under all circumstances, while the 1929 Act allowed for abortion in exceptional cases.

The Bourne Case 1938

In 1938 the Bourne case set the scene for a change of policy on abortion. A young woman was gang raped by a group of soldiers and became pregnant. Dr Alec Bourne agreed to perform an abortion for her and was subsequently prosecuted. Bourne argued that it was necessary to perform the abortion to preserve the health of the young woman. The judge agreed that forcing her to continue with the pregnancy would have been tantamount to wrecking her life. The doctor was not convicted. This case set a legal precedent for performing an abortion to preserve a woman’s mental health.

The Abortion Act 1967

In the time between the Bourne ruling and the 1967 Abortion Act some women did have abortions for urgent medical reasons or, with the consent of a psychiatrist, to protect their mental health.

Wealthier women were more likely to be able to pay to see a psychiatrist who could agree to a safe abortion, but many would have had no option but to seek illegal methods for ending a pregnancy.

The cost to women’s health of illegal abortion was high with around 40 women dying each year and many more injured. Doctors, politicians and members of some religious communities worked together to pass a law that allowed for abortion in some circumstances.

The Abortion Act was passed in 1967, a time of lively political campaigning, and is sometimes seen as one of the triumphs of the women’s movement. The reality is that it was not passed to give women rights, but to respond to a public health problem.

The law gave the rights and responsibility for decision making to doctors not women. It did not legalise abortion, but allowed for exceptions to the illegality of abortion.

Much of the law is open to interpretation and asks doctors to make a judgement based on weighing up risks rather than specifying particular circumstances in which abortion would be legal.

There have been several attempts in Parliament to restrict abortion law further by those who do not support a woman’s right to choose abortion. Those who do support the right to choose are also unhappy with the law, which is perceived to be unclear and too restrictive.

In 1990 the 1967 Act was amended by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, which reduced the original time limit of 28 weeks to 24 weeks for most abortions.

How does the law actually work?

In Britain most abortions are carried out under grounds C and D of the Abortion Act i.e. two doctors agree that the risk to a woman’s mental or physical health or the health of her existing child(ren) would be greater if she were to continue with the pregnancy than if she were to end it. These are very broad criteria, which demand that doctors rely on their own judgment of risk.

Some doctors believe that women are the best people to make decisions about their own pregnancy and will refer any woman who requests an abortion on the grounds that her mental health will suffer by being forced to continue with a pregnancy which is unwanted.

Since abortion is statistically safer than carrying a pregnancy to term and giving birth, some doctors will say that abortion always represents a lesser threat to a woman’s health than pregnancy, and any woman requesting an abortion should have one on health grounds.

Other doctors interpret the law more narrowly. They want to be convinced that there is specific evidence that a woman’s health will be put at risk by the pregnancy, and will not always refer a woman for abortion.

Some doctors oppose abortion on principle and might refuse to refer a woman for an abortion in any circumstances, on the grounds that they have a ‘conscientious objection’ to abortion.

Conscientious objection to abortion

Most doctors will refer women for abortion, but a minority feel that abortion is always wrong. The 1967 Abortion Act allows for these doctors to 'conscientiously object' and not be involved (except where the pregnant woman is at risk of death or serious injury):

No person shall be under any duty, whether by contract or by any statutory or other legal requirement, to participate in any treatment authorised by this Act to which he has a conscientious objection."

The General Medical Council advises doctors that they must ensure a woman is able to see another professional who will assist her:

If carrying out a particular procedure or giving advice about it conflicts with your religious or moral beliefs, and this conflict might affect the treatment or advice you provide, you must explain this to the patient and tell them they have the right to see another doctor.

You must be satisfied that the patient has sufficient information to enable them to exercise that right. If it is not practical for a patient to arrange to see another doctor, you must ensure that arrangements are made for another suitably qualified colleague to take over your role".

The GMC stresses the importance of arranging alternative provision for young people:

Children and young people in particular may have difficulty in making alternative arrangements themselves, so you must make sure that arrangements are made for another suitably qualified colleague to take over your role as quickly as possible."

Page last reviewed: April 2016
Next review due: April 2017