Abortion law

England, Scotland and Wales

In 1967, Parliament passed the Abortion Act, later amended by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990.

It applies to England, Wales and Scotland. It does not extend to Northern Ireland.

Rather than making abortion legal, the Act makes exceptions to the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act which made abortion an offence punishable by life in prison.

Under the 1967 Act, a doctor can legally perform an abortion, which has been authorised by two doctors, up to 23 weeks and 6 days of pregnancy if continuing the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy was terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family.

An abortion can be authorised and carried out with no time limit if:  

  • the termination is necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman
  • there is a risk to the life of the pregnant woman, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated
  • there is substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.

Availability

Until recently, all abortions in England, Scotland and Wales were required to take place in an NHS hospital or a place approved by the Secretary of State, for example, a registered clinic.

Wales and Scotland have recently updated their laws on early medical abortion, with women now able to take the second stage of the medication at home. The UK government has said that home use in England will be legalised by the end of 2018.

Conscientious objection

Health professionals are not required to perform or participate in an abortion if they have a moral or conscientious objection. They still have a duty to participate in an abortion, if it is necessary to save the life of a woman or to prevent serious injury.

Any doctor or nurse who feels unable to give information or counselling to a woman seeking an abortion should refer her to another doctor without delay.

Guidance

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, outdated laws force women to continue with pregnancy against their will.

Many women from Northern Ireland are forced to travel to other parts of the UK to have abortions. In 2016/17, only 13 abortions were performed in Northern Irish hospitals. This compares to at least 861 women and girls from Northern Ireland who travelled to England and Wales for an abortion in 2017.

Given the large numbers of women travelling from Northern Ireland, the UK Government’s 2017 announcement that Northern Irish women would be eligible for free NHS abortions in England was welcome.

However, it is not a substitute for a comprehensive reform of the law.  It also excludes many people who are unable or unwilling to travel. This includes victims of domestic violence, refugees without confirmed immigration status who are unable to travel, those who are too young to travel alone and those with complex health needs.