Current Topics: 50 Years since the Abortion Act

By Dr Emma Brierley

Dr Brierley assesses whether we should think about revising the laws around the personal and divisive subject of abortion

The Abortion Act

The Abortion Act was passed on 27 October 1967, coming into effect on 27 April 1968. The act can be read here:

The groundbreaking act made abortion legal in all of Great Britain apart from Northern Ireland. This was a defining moment for women, as they no longer had to risk dangerous and unsafe back-street abortions. Prior to this, many women died as a result of wanting to end a pregnancy. Topics like abortion will always be highly controversial, with many people having contrasting and strong opinions. With the growing use of social media both pro-choice and pro-life groups are becoming increasingly vocal.

Abortion can be carried out for a variety of reasons, providing two registered medical practitioners agree to the procedure. Most abortions occur before 24 weeks of pregnancy unless there is a serious risk to the mother or unborn child. Abortions can be carried out medically taking two tablets to induce a miscarriage or surgically to remove the pregnancy.

Due to the ethical issues that abortion evokes, it is unlikely you that will be asked about this in a medical school interview. However, as a medical student and indeed a doctor it is essential that you keep up to date with current affairs in the NHS. As a doctor you can refuse to perform abortions, however you must always refer the patient to another doctor who will.

It is 50 years since the Abortion Act was introduced and there has been a lot of discussion recently as to whether the Act needs to be amended. It was amended in 1990 by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act to reduce the legal limit of abortion from 28 weeks to 24 weeks except in certain cases.

Is it now time for further change?

Many people now feel the Abortion Act needs to be changed for a variety of reasons including:

  • A foetus is now classed as viable at 24 weeks, and therefore doctors will intervene with medical treatment to help save their life. However some babies are surviving younger than this with the youngest foetus to survive being born at 21 weeks and 6 days. The story of this particular child, Amillia Taylor, carries strong implications within the discussion about whether we should we lower the limit for abortion. And if so, what should the new limit be?

  • At present all abortions have to be carried out in a hospital or an approved clinic. Should medical abortions be allowed at home? Who should have autonomy towards the life of a child: the mother, or her doctor? 

  • Should the need for two doctors to agree to the abortion be removed? Would one be sufficient? What about a specially-trained nurse?

  • Should women be allowed to have abortions through personal choice rather than meeting medical criteria? What about in the cases of young mothers, or those who feel they cannot financially support a child? 

With increasing medical developments such as non invasive pre-natal testing allowing a more accurate diagnosis of medical conditions that could affect the foetus, will this have an effect on the abortion rate?

Medical applicants should start thinking about whether the act should be changed, and if so, how, and to what extent? This will continue to be a contentious subject, and students should bare that in mind when they are discussing this with any peers or even in academic situations