- Abortion in the United Kingdom
Abortion in the United Kingdom has been legal in
England, Scotlandand Walessince the Abortion Act passed in 1967. At the time, this legislation was one of the most liberal laws regarding abortionin Europe. However, abortion remains illegal in Northern Ireland, and all political parties in Northern Ireland oppose its legalisation.Fact|date=October 2008
Abortion had been historically legal under common law in England, Scotland and Wales. Under English
common law, abortions prior to 'quickening' - when the fetus could first be felt to move by the pregnant woman - were thought to be morally and legally acceptable. Under Scottish common law, abortion was defined as a criminal offence unless performed for 'reputable medical reasons,' a definition sufficiently broad as to essentially preclude prosecution. Following protests from medical professionals, who worried about the dangers of the procedure and that it was regularly carried out by non-medical personnel, abortion was made a crime in 1803, subject to the death penaltyor exile (i.e., transportation for life to Australia or another penal colony). It later was regulated under the Offences Against the Person Act of 1837, which eliminated the death penalty as a possible punishment, and ss58/9 Offences Against The Person Act 1861, which eliminated exile as a possible punishment and made abortion or attempts to "procure a miscarriage" illegal under all and any circumstances, providing::58. Every woman, being with child, who, with intent to procure her own miscarriage, shall unlawfully administer to herself any poison or other noxious thing, or shall unlawfully use any instrument or other means whatsoever with the like intent, and whosoever, with intent to procure the miscarriage of any woman whether she be or be not with child, shall unlawfully administer to her or cause to be taken by her any poison or other noxious thing, or unlawfully use any instrument or other means whatsoever with the like intent, shall be guilty of felony, and being convicted thereof shall be liable … to be kept in penal servitude for life ....:59. Whosoever shall unlawfully supply or procure any poison or other noxious thing, or any instrument or thing whatsoever, knowing that the same is intended to be unlawfully used or employed with intent to procure the miscarriage of any woman, whether she be or be not with child, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and being convicted thereof shall be liable ... to be kept in penal servitude ....These provisions remain the law but they have not deterred abortions. From 1870 there was a steady decline in fertility, linked not to a rise in the use of artificial contraception but to more traditional methods such as withdrawal and abstinence (Szreter; Fisher). This was lined to changes in the perception of the relative costs of childrearing. Of course, women did find themselves with unwanted pregnancies. Abortifacients were discreetly advertised and there was a considerable body of folklore about methods of inducing miscarriages. Amongst working class women violent purgatives were popular, pennyroyal, aloes and turpentinewere all used. Other methods to induce miscarriage were very hot baths and gin, extreme exertion, a controlled fall down a flight of stairs, or veterinary medicines. So-called 'backstreet' abortionists were fairly common, although their bloody efforts could be fatal. Estimates of the number of illegal abortions varied widely - by one estimate, 100,000 women made efforts to procure a miscarriage in 1914, usually by drugs.
The criminality of abortion was relaxed in 1929 when the
Infant Life (Preservation) Actwas passed. The Act allowed for abortion prior to 28 weeks if necessary to preserve the life of the woman on physical grounds. Social, psychological and other factors were still discounted. However it was not until May 2007 that a woman from Levenshulme, Manchestersuspected of having had an illegal late-term abortion in early 2006 was convincted under the Infant Life (Preservation) Act of 1929. The case is believed to be the first of its kind in Britain. [ " [http://www.gmp.police.uk/mainsite/pages/8FC57EE6DF5E0E70802572E50038846C.htm%5D%5D Mother of three sentenced for child destruction in landmark case] ." (May 24, 2007). "Greater Manchester Police." Retrieved November 1, 2007.] [ " [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/manchester/6687893.stm Baby destruction woman sentenced] ." (May 24, 2007). "BBC News." Retrieved November 1, 2007.] [Britten, Nick. (May 27, 2007). " [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/05/26/nabort26.xml Jury convicts mother who destroyed foetus] ." "The Telegraph." Retrieved November 1, 2007.]
Bourne Rulingin 1938 allowed for further considerations to be taken into account. The ruling came from the 1938 case of "Rex v. Bourne" following an abortion performed on a girl who had been raped. It extended the right of abortion to cover psychological grounds.
The gynaecologist concerned,
Aleck Bourne, later becomes a founder member of the anti-abortion group SPUC ( Society for the Protection of Unborn Children) in 1966. The pro-choice group, the Abortion Law Reform Association, was formed in 1936.
In 1939 the
Birkett Committeerecommended a change to abortion laws but the intervention of World War IImeant that all plans were shelved. Post-war, after decades of stasis certain high profile tragedies, including thalidomide, and social changes brought the issue of abortion back into the political arena.
The 1967 Act
Abortion Act 1967sought to clarify the law. Introduced by David Steeland subject to heated debate it allowed for legal abortion on a number of grounds, with the added protection of free provision through the National Health Service. The Act was passed on 27 October 1967 and came into effect on 27 April 1968.
The Act allowed a woman to receive an abortion on any of the following grounds:
* To save the woman's life
* To prevent grave permanent injury to the woman's physical or
* Under 28 weeks to avoid injury to the physical or mental health of the woman
* Under 28 weeks to avoid injury to the physical or mental health of the existing child(ren)
* If the child was likely to be severely physically or mentally handicapped
The Act required that the procedure must be certified by two doctors before being performed.
Changes to the 1967 Abortion Act were introduced in Parliament through the
Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. The time limits were lowered from 28 weeks to 24 for most cases to reflect improving medical technology. Restrictions were removed for late abortions in cases of risk to life, fetal abnormality, or grave physical and mental injury to the woman.
Since 1967, members of Parliament have introduced a number of
private member's bills to change the abortion law. Four resulted in substantive debate (1975, 1977, 1979 and 1987) but all failed. The Lane Committeeinvestigated the workings of the Act in 1974 and declared its support.
In May 2008, MPs voted to retain the current legal limit of 24 weeks. Amendments proposing reductions to 22 weeks and 20 weeks were defeated by 304 to 233 votes and 332 to 190 votes respectively. [ [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7412118.stm BBC NEWS | Politics | MPs reject cut in abortion limit ] ]
Number of abortions
Post 1967 there was a rapid increase in the annual number of legal abortions. The rate of increase fell from the early 1970s and actually dipped from 1991-95 before rising again. The age group with the highest number of abortions per 1000 is amongst those aged 20-24. 2006 statistics for England & Wales revealed that 48% of abortions occurred to women over the age of 25, 29% were aged 20-24; 21% aged under 20 and 2% under 16. [Government Statistical Service for the Department of Health. (June 19, 2007). [http://www.dh.gov.uk/en/Publicationsandstatistics/Publications/PublicationsStatistics/DH_075697 Abortion statistics, England and Wales: 2006] . Retrieved November 1, 2007.]
In 2004, there were 185,415 abortions in
England and Wales. 87% of abortions were performed at 12 weeks or less and 1.6% (or 2,914 abortions) occurred after 20 weeks. 82% of abortions were carried out by the National Health Service. [http://www.dh.gov.uk/assetRoot/04/11/75/74/04117574.pdf]
The overwhelming majority of abortions (95% in 2004 for
England and Wales) were certified under the statutory ground of risk of injury to the mental or physical health of the pregnant woman. [http://www.dh.gov.uk/assetRoot/04/11/75/74/04117574.pdf]
Attitudes to abortion
Surveys show support for legal abortion. Some observers believe feeling against abortion is growing. According to Cardinal
Cormac Murphy O'Connor, there is "a growing unease with... the idea of abortion". Campbell, Denis, & Hinsliff, Gaby. (January 29, 2006). " [http://observer.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,,1697424,00.html Women demand tougher laws to curb abortions] ." "The Guardian." Retrieved November 1, 2007.] Nonetheless legal abortion still retains public support on the mainland.
Support for legal abortion remains weak in Northern Ireland.Fact|date=October 2008
2004 Times/Populus poll
According to a 2004 Times/Populus survey, Britons' feelings on abortion are: [" [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4350259.stm Q&A: Abortion law] ." (June 21, 2006). "BBC News." Retrieved November 1, 2007.]
*75% of Britons believe abortion should be legal
**38% of Britons believe abortion should "always" be legal
**36% of Britons believe abortion should "mostly" be legal
*23% of Britons believe abortion should be illegal
**20% of Britons believe abortion should "mostly" be illegal
**4% of Britons believe abortion should "always" be illegal
NB: The survey compares the results to respondents' voting habits for mainland parties, indicating the possibility that Northern Ireland was not included in this survey.
2005 YouGov/Daily Telegraph poll
According to an August 2005
YouGov/ Daily Telegraphsurvey, Britons' feelings toward abortion by gestational ageare: [YouGov. ( 2005-07-30). [http://www.yougov.com/archives/pdf/TEL050101042_1.pdf YouGov/Daily Telegraph Survey Results] . Retrieved 2006-01-11.]
* 30% would back a measure to reduce the legal limit for abortion to 20 weeks
*25% support maintaining the current limit of 24 weeks
*19% support a limit of 12 weeks
*9% support a limit of fewer than 12 weeks
*6% responded that abortion should never be allowed
*2% said it should be permitted throughout pregnancy
2006 MORI poll
A more recent survey shows support for restricting abortion laws in the UK, and is cited by the Catholic Church in England and Wales as evidence of a growing unease with abortion.
According to the survey:
*42% of British men and women believe the legal limit for an abortion should be cut (i.e abortion more restricted).
**47% of British women believe the legal limit for an abortion should be cut
**36% of British men believe the legal limit for an abortion should be cut
*10% of British women believe that abortion should be "outlawed altogether"
Methodology is time related - up to the ninth week medical abortion can be used (
mifepristonewas approved for use in Britain in 1991), from the seventh up to the fifteenth week suction or vacuum aspiration is most common (largely replacing the more damaging D & C technique), for the fifteenth to the eighteenth weeks surgical D & E is most common.
The 1967 Act does not apply to
Northern Ireland, where the 1861 Act and the Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Act of 1945 are the defining principles. [ [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/northern_ireland/1386450.stm Q&A: Abortion in NI] . (June 13 , 2001). "BBC News". Retrieved November 1, 2007.] [Murdoch, Alan. (April 1, 1995). [http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/310/6983/822/a Northern Ireland MPs fight abortion] . "British Medical Journal, 310 (6983)," 822-823. Retrieved November 1, 2007.] Efforts by some British politicians to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland have not been successful due to opposition from nationalist and unionist communities, uniting the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Partyand Sinn Féin, the Ulster Unionist Party, the Roman Catholic Churchand the Democratic Unionist Party. Even the cross-community Northern Ireland Women's Coalitionhas declined to support a change in the law on abortion in Northern Ireland. Only some of the smaller parties advocate "some" relaxation of the abortion laws in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland Assemblydebated the issue of abortion in October 2007 as a result of a motion tabled by Jeffrey Donaldsonand Iris Robinson. [Northern Ireland Assembly. (October 22, 2007). [http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/record/reports2007/071022.htm Official Report 22 October 2007] . Retrieved November 1, 2007.] The motion, which rejected draft guidelines on abortion issued by the Department of Health in January of the same year, was passed. [" [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/northern_ireland/7057128.stm Assembly call over abortion guide] ." (October 22, 2007). "BBC News." Retrieved November 1, 2007.] [The Department of Health, Social Services, & Public Safety. (January 16, 2007). " [http://archive.nics.gov.uk/hss/070116h-hss.htm Department Issues Draft Guidelines on Termination of Pregnancy] ." Retrieved November 1, 2007.] Precious Life, a pro-life group, stated that this outcome represented a "victory for unborn children". [" [http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/new.php?n=10788 Northern Ireland passes anti-abortion motion in 'victory' for unborn children] ." (October 25, 2007). "Catholic News Agency." Retieved November 1, 2007.] [" [http://www.cinews.ie/article.php?artid=4072 Northern Ireland Assembly passes anti abortion motion] ." (n.d.). "ciNews." Retrieved November 1, 2007.]
Each year, there are between seventy and eighty abortions performed legally in Northern Ireland, and about two thousand women travel to England or Wales for an abortion. [Dyer, Clare. (July 8, 2003). " [http://www.guardian.co.uk/Northern_Ireland/Story/0,2763,993484,00.html Court rejects call to clarify Ulster abortion law] ." "The Guardian." Retrieved November 1, 2007.] The Department of Health Statistics for the year 2006 show that 1,295 women from Northern Ireland accessed abortion in the mainland UK. [ [http://www.dh.gov.uk/en/Publicationsandstatistics/Publications/PublicationsStatistics/DH_075697 Department of Health] ]
Religion and abortion
* UK National Statistics Office Abortion Data (England and Wales) - http://www.statistics.gov.uk/CCI/nscl.asp?ID=6249
* Scottish Health Statistics Abortion Data (Scotland) - http://www.isdscotland.org/isd/info3.jsp?pContentID=1918&p_applic=CCC&p_service=Content.show&
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