What would changing the law on abortion mean?

Published: 21st Mar 2017

In brief

Claim

Abortion is still a crime unless it’s approved by doctors.

Conclusion

Correct, although prosecutions are very rare in practice.

“MPs vote to decriminalise abortion in England and Wales

The 1967 Abortion Act did not decriminalise abortion, but rather made it legal if two doctors approve the procedure.”

Independent, 20 March 2017

This is correct.

Abortions, or terminations, of pregnancy in England and Wales are legal provided that the conditions in the 1967 Act are met.

Doctors can approve and carry out an abortion for any one of seven reasons given in that Act. 98% are carried out due to a risk to the woman’s mental health, which is covered by one of those seven provisions.

But those seven reasons are exceptionsalbeit wide-ranging exceptionsto the general rule that aborting a pregnancy is a criminal offence. That rule is still in the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.

So a woman who terminates her pregnancy, or a doctor who performs the termination, without following the rules from the 1967 Act commits a crime.

In practice, prosecutions are very rare. The number of illegal abortions found in police records every year is in the single digits.

Someperhaps mostof these prosecutions actually involve men who assault a pregnant woman or secretly give her drugs to trigger an abortion. Professor Sally Sheldon of Kent Law School says she has found only two convictions of women illegally terminating their own pregnancy in the past decade.

Nevertheless, campaigners argue that women looking for abortion drugs, particularly online, shouldn’t be at risk of prosecution.

That wouldn’t mean abortion drugs being freely available from online sources. It would still be illegal to sell them because they’re prescription medications. But only the seller would be open to prosecution, not the woman buying them.

Opponents say that decriminalisation would “embolden those men who pressurise women into abortions that they do not wish to have”.

The fact that MPs have voted in principle for this change to the law doesn’t mean it will happen. The vote was on a Bill introduced under the Ten Minute Rule by a backbench MP. Such Bills rarely pass in the end, as there’s not always time in the parliamentary calendar.

Abortions are legal if…

Two doctors think that the pregnancy is under 24 weeks and it continuing would involve risk, “greater than if the pregnancy were terminated”, to the pregnant woman’s physical or mental health.

Two doctors think that the pregnancy is under 24 weeks and it continuing would involve risk, “greater than if the pregnancy were terminated”, to the physical or mental health of other children in the family.

Two doctors think that “the termination is necessary to prevent grave permanent injury” to the pregnant woman’s physical or mental health.

Two doctors think that continuing the pregnancy would involve risk to the pregnant woman’s life, “greater than if the pregnancy were terminated”.

Two doctors think that there is a “substantial risk” that the child would be born “seriously handicapped”.

A doctor thinks that the termination is necessary in an emergency to save the life of a pregnant woman.

A doctor thinks that the termination is necessary in an emergency to “prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health” of the pregnant woman.

(For the exact wording see section 1 of the Abortion Act 1967.)


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