Factchecking campaigning leaflets on abortion

8 March 2018
What was claimed

There have been over 8.7 million abortions since 1967.

Our verdict

Since mid-1968, when the Abortion Act was first introduced in Britain, there have been around 8.7 million recorded abortions.

What was claimed

There are 4,000 abortions a week in Britain.

Our verdict

There were around 202,000 recorded abortions in Britain in 2016. That’s around 4,000 a week on average.

“Over 8.7 million unborn babies tragically killed by abortion since 1967”

“Every week 4,000 babies die by abortion in Britain”

Society for the Protection of Unborn Children leaflets, sent to Full Fact by a reader in January 2018

Earlier this year we were asked to factcheck some of the figures in leaflets received by a reader on the topic of abortion.

The Abortion Act came into effect in 1968, making abortion legal in some circumstances in England, Wales, and Scotland.

The checkable part of the claims above is how many abortions there have been since 1967.

Since then, there have been over 8.7 million abortions in Britain.

Around 202,000 abortions were recorded in Britain in 2016—that’s around 4,000 a week on average.  

That compares to over 750,000 births in Britain that year, or around 15,000 a week on average.

Since the late-1990s, each year there have been around 16 to 18 abortions for every 1,000 women, aged between 15 and 44 and living in England and Wales. The figure peaked in 2007 and has fallen slightly since then.

97% of abortions for residents in England and Wales in 2016 were on the grounds that the pregnancy continuing posed a risk of injury to the mother’s physical or mental health, “greater than if the pregnancy were terminated”.

There were 13 recorded abortions in Northern Ireland in 2016/17. The law on abortion is different there, which we’ll cover later on.

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Abortions for women who were non-residents

Roughly 5,000 abortions in England and Wales in 2016 were for non-residents—3% of the total recorded number. Most of these abortions were for women from Ireland and Northern Ireland.

In Ireland, abortion is currently illegal unless the mother’s life is in danger. In May 2018, a referendum was held in which the Irish people voted to repeal and replace the article in the constitution which sets this law. The new laws on abortion have not yet been implemented, but the Irish government has proposed that they include that abortion be allowed “without specific indication” up to the twelfth week of pregnancy.

In Northern Ireland abortion is only legal if “it is necessary to preserve the life of the woman”, or if there is considered to be “a risk of real and serious adverse effect on her physical or mental health, which is either long term or permanent”. This is based on legislation from 1861 and 1945, and more recent case law.

In Scotland, seven women who weren’t resident in the country had abortions there in 2016—although there is no more information on where they were from. But the Scottish government says that women from outside Scotland might be counted as Scottish residents if they provide a temporary Scottish address.

The law on abortion in Britain

The Abortion Act 1967 applies to England, Wales and Scotland, but not to Northern Ireland. It allows for abortions to be carried out by a registered doctor if certain conditions are met.

An abortion is generally allowed up to the twenty-fourth week of a pregnancy if two doctors think that continuing the pregnancy involves a risk “greater than if the pregnancy were terminated” to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman, or to other children in her family.

There is no time limit on when an abortion can be carried out if two doctors think the pregnancy involves a risk to the pregnant woman’s life “greater than if the pregnancy were terminated”, or will cause “grave permanent injury” to the pregnant woman’s physical or mental health. If these cases are an emergency then the approval of a second doctor isn’t required.

An abortion can also be carried out at any time if there is a substantial risk that if the child was born, it would be with “physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped”.

The Abortion Act 1967 provides a list of legal exceptions.  Abortion is still illegal, unless one of the above criteria are fulfilled and the abortion is carried out “in the NHS or an approved independent sector place in the NHS or an approved independent sector place”.

In 2017, the House of Commons voted in principle for a bill proposing to change the law on abortion, and we wrote about this at the time. But the proposed bill was never completed, due to parliament being dissolved soon after for the general election.

We take reader suggestions, so please send us any other claims you want us to factcheck.

Update 29 May 2018

We updated this article to include the results of the Irish referendum on changing the law on abortion.

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