One in three women in the UK under the age of 45 will have an abortion in their lifetimes, according to the latest statistics. This is more than many people would think, and many in Great Britain believe that abortions are legal across the UK.
The UK is generally consistent when it comes to its laws, and acts like the Human Rights Act and the membership of the European courts would imply that there is a consistent legal basis for abortion rights in the UK.
However, this is not the case. In Great Britain, which is Wales, Scotland, and England (and a few islands), abortion has been legal since the 1967 Abortion Act. This set out the conditions in which a woman can obtain a legal abortion and was considered a landmark piece of legislation. The rights of the woman and the child were set out in clear terms that many considered a successful balance between protecting the potential of lives, the necessity of having practical legislation that represented the reality of abortion, and the rights of the mother to choose what happens in her own body.
When Abortion is Legal
Abortion was legalised in cases of rape, incest, danger to the life of the mother, when the foetus is not viable (will not survive), the child is likely to have mental or physical abnormalities, or the foetus is dead.
The pregnancy must not have exceeded 24 weeks (the current threshold of viability) unless the continued pregnancy would present a significant risk to the mental or physical health of the mother, or the foetus has become unviable.
Who Can Provide an Abortion?
An abortion is only legal when performed by a licensed medical professional and has been signed off by two independent doctors.
Sex-selective abortions are illegal, but the law is unclear on whether a woman’s economic and social environment is reasonable grounds for an abortion. The doctor who signs off on the procedure must make a decision as to whether the physical or mental health of the woman is going to be adversely affected by carrying the baby to term.
The Human Rights Act 1988 strengthened these provisions, citing a woman’s right to a family and private life. This adds to the protection of women and ensures that she can get a safe abortion.
In Northern Ireland, the rules are different. Because of the largely religiously motivated legislation, abortion in Northern Ireland is illegal in all but the most serious cases. The penalty for abortion in Northern Ireland is life imprisonment or any penalty less than life in prison. This is unusually severe for a Western nation.
Rape and incest are not reasonable grounds for an abortion in Northern Ireland. The method of conception is considered irrelevant when it comes to protecting that child.
In Northern Ireland, the only ways a woman can get a legal abortion are if the continued pregnancy would pose a risk to the life of the mother in the short or long-term, or the mental health of the mother would be so affected that she would become a risk to her own life through suicide.
The Offences Against the Person Act 1861 is still in force, mandating the most severe punishments for women who have abortions and those who assist them. It is illegal to seek to terminate a pregnancy or to help a woman in the process of obtaining an abortion, except in the conditions where the abortion would be legal.
People from Northern Ireland are not entitled to free abortions on the NHS, unlike the rest of the population of the UK. This means they have to pay for them themselves. This can be prohibitively expensive and prevents many women from obtaining abortions.
Even ordering the drugs to induce an abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland, with lengthy prison sentences for anyone caught doing so.
The situation looks to change in Northern Ireland as the Supreme Court of the UK has recently held that the Offences Against the Person Act is incompatible with the Human Rights Act with regards to rape, incest, or foetal abnormality. This was not a ruling, and there is a long way to go before legislation is passed, but the groundwork for bringing legislation in line with the UK is being laid. Many young people are rejecting the religious morality that dominated Ireland until very recently, seeking instead more secular morals and laws that reflect this new perspective.
The Future of Abortion in the UK
There have been appeals to make abortion legal on socio-economic grounds in recent years but these have been turned down by the courts. The argument for abortion on these grounds is that women who can choose when to have a child are more able to provide fully for that child and cycles of poverty and inequality will be weakened if children are born to parents who can provide properly for them. Some cite the correlation between falling crime rates and the availability of abortion, but so far none of these arguments has been successful.