The Current Situation in the UK
The current law on abortion is based on:
- Abortion Act (1967)
- Section 37 of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (1990)
Abortion is allowed up to 24 weeks on condition that continuing with the pregnancy involves a greater risk to:
- the physical or mental health of the woman, or
- the physical or mental health of the woman’s existing children than having a termination.
When establishing the level of risk to health, doctors can take into consideration a woman’s ‘actual or reasonably foreseeable environment’, which includes her personal and social situation. Abortion is also allowed if 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’.
Abortion is allowed after 24 weeks if there is:
- risk to the life of the woman,
- evidence of severe fetal abnormality, or
- risk of grave physical and mental injury to the woman.
An abortion must be:
- agreed by two doctors (one in an emergency) and
- carried out by a doctor, and
- carried out in a government-approved hospital or clinic.
The 1967 Abortion Act only applies to England, Scotland and Wales. In recent years Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man have all introduced their own legislation; some of this is more liberal than that on the mainland. However, in Northern Ireland abortion can only be obtained if the woman’s life is at risk and in some cases of fetal abnormality.
Most GPs are pro-choice, but there are some (approximately 10% (1))their patients. According to their professional guidelines, conscientious objectors should treat a woman who is seeking an abortion with dignity and respect and refer her immediately to another health care provider. They are, however, not legally obliged to do so.
(1) General Practitioners: attitudes to abortion’, MSI, 1999