Abortion in the UK

Defining Abortion:

Abortions are not:

Miscarriage is deemed as natural, and not abortion; however in history women fearing pregnancy have used herbs to cause miscarriage, or to generate menstruation.

People often forget that many conceptions are unnoticed or late or missed periods. The body often does not support a conception (one in six fertilisations end in miscarriage).

Abortion is:

After some four weeks since the last normal menstrual period an embryo is acquiring the basics of recognisable features.

For some, abortion is the removal of dependent life which may never achieve selfhood anyway, that has no or limited consciousness, and is at best potential selfhood with only gathering consciousness and environmental awareness; for others, abortion is life, and it is always wrong to kill whether a bunch of cells or a foetus that acquires increasing consciousness and ability to suffer pain.

Abortion has been used in some countries and some individuals as an alternative to contraception; the morning after pill makes abortion into contraception at the earliest stage of possible pregnancy (it may be preventing a non-pregnancy). In more recent times there is the research that will allow the growth of human tissue to repair diseases and this requires very early stage growth of human fertilised or cloned cells.

Old Laws on Abortion (background):

Contemporary Laws:

The contemporary law on abortion comes fundamentally from 1967, and it has a practical approach. An aim was to end "back street" and "DIY" abortions. It was adapted in 1990 (see below).


In practice the act operates that once the two doctors agree according to conditions then the preganancy can be terminated. This has been challenged from time to time, when it is considered that doctors have accepted termination for a trivial reason.

Psychological health reasons for termination can include:

It is important to realise that these are arguments are about the impact that would result on the woman's pyschological state. They raise the likelihood of abortion: doctors can make a judgment.

Psychological reasons against termination include:

What we see nevertheless is that psychological ill health is seen as resulting from poor social conditions: therefore social conditions do play a part! The act was therefore flexible: not quite abortion on demand but distress if denied abotion meaning not far from it.

A second consequence is the woman being regarded as a psychological problem: this has a long history, when men were regarded as rational and stable and women as emotional and unstable. Instead of tackling social conditions directly, putting them into psychology continues this labelling of women. This image is enhanced if it is two male doctors making the final decision.

In Northern Ireland, as in the Republic of Ireland, abortion is only allowed with an immediate danger to the life of the woman and emergent baby. This means that many women in the north and south of Ireland come to Britain to have an abortion. Britain remains stricter than many other countries in the European Union, where Roman Catholicism is not historically important regarding the state or where secularism has superseded Catholicism (eg France).

From 1990:

Adaptations have been made to the Abortion Act of 1967. This joins abortion into areas including human cell research as well as (traditionally with) contraception.


Hordern, A. (1971), Legal Abortion: The English Experience, Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Donellan, C. (ed.) (1997), The Abortion Debate, Issues for the Nineties, Vol. 34, Cambridge: Independence.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful