Abortion has been legal in England, Scotland and Wales since 1967. At the time, the legislation was one of the most liberal in Europe.
Prior to 1967, abortion had been made a crime in 1803 and later was regulated under the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861, which made abortion or attempts to "procure a miscarriage" illegal under all and any circumstances.
Of course this did not mean abortions did not occur. While there was a steady increase in the use of artificial contraception, and women were making determined efforts to limit family size (household size, 1891: 4.6, 1931: 3.7), 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, penny royal, aloes and turpentine were all used. Other methods to induce miscarriage were very hot baths and gin, extreme exertion, a controlled fall down a flight of stairs, or vetinary medicines. So-called 'backstreet' abortionists were fairly common, although their bloody efforts could be fatal. The level of use of these methods is unclear, it has been estimated that in 1914 100,000 women made efforts to procure a miscarriage, usually by drugs.
The criminality of abortion was relaxed in 1929 when the Infant Life (Preservation) Act was passed. The Act allowed for abortion prior to 28 weeks if necessary to preserve the life of the mother on physical grounds. Social, psychological and other factors were still discounted.
The Bourne Ruling of 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-abortion group, the Abortion Law Reform Association, was formed in 1936.
In 1939 the Birkett Committee recommended a change to abortion laws but the intervention of World War II meant 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 Abortion Act of 1967 sought to clarify the law. Introduced by David Steel and 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 October 27, 1967 and came into effect on April 27, 1968.
The Act allowed a woman to receive an abortion on any of the follow grounds:
- To save the mother's life.
- To prevent grave permanent injury to the mother's physical or mental health
- Under 28 weeks to avoid injury to the physical or mental health of the mother
- 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 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. Between 1925 and 1974 there were around sixty prosecutions for abortion under the 1891 Act. Efforts by some British politicians to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland have not been successful due to opposition from both nationalist and unionist communities, uniting the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, the Ulster Unionist Party, the Roman Catholic Church, the anglican Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church and the Rev. Ian Paisley, the leader of the protestant Democratic Unionist Party and moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church. Even the cross-community Women's Coalition has declined to support a change in the law on abortion in Northern Ireland. Only some of the smaller parties and Sinn Féin advocate the introduction of some abortion into Northern Ireland.
The Republic of Ireland (see abortion in Ireland) in a referendum of the population in 1983 amended the Irish constitution to give a constitutional right to life to the foetus equal to the right to life of its mother "as far as practicable". Some Irish women seeking abortions therefore travel to Britain for private abortions. Estimates to the number of Irish women seeking abortions in England vary, in the 1990s it is alleged that between 1,500 and 10,000 women who stated in hospital records that they were 'Irish' travel annually. The official figure is 45,000 since 1967.
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.
Post 1967 there was, naturally, a rapid increase in the annual number of 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. Certain sources estimate that one in three women aged 15-45 have had an abortion.
In 1995, 89% of abortions in England and Wales were performed at 12 weeks or less and less than 0.5% occur after 20 weeks. 74% of abortions are carried out by the NHS in England and Wales and 90% in Scotland. In 1998, 177,871 abortions were carried out in England and Wales, 63 abortions were carried out later than 25 weeks. In 2002 there were almost 185,000 abortions in England and Wales, of which 110 were performed later than 24 weeks.
Methodology is time related - up to the ninth week medical abortion can be used (mifepristone was 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.
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 Committee investigated the workings of the Act in 1974 and declared its support.