The reasons for people having abortions are varied, complex, and sometimes difficult to understand. There are few topics more emotive than the prospect of destroying what could be considered a baby, or what might become a baby if left to grow. Debates have raged about legislation and the rights of the woman and the child, but modern legislation usually reflects the need for abortion, not the moral objections.
In the UK, abortion is only legal in certain circumstances. They can only be performed by licensed doctors in hospitals or licensed clinics.
Threat to Life
If the life of the mother is at risk from a continued pregnancy, abortion is legal. The usual limit for abortions is 24 weeks but in the case of life threatening outcomes, abortion can be legally justified at any time. A mother’s life can be endangered by her pregnancy in cases of infection, the foetus dying, bleeding in the womb or cervix, tissue rejection, or problems miscarrying. In these cases, a doctor will sign off on an abortion after two independent licensed practitioners have reviewed the case and deemed it to be sufficiently dangerous to justify an abortion.
Risk to Mental Health
If a woman’s long term mental health is thought to be at significant risk were the pregnancy to continue, this is grounds for an abortion. This could be due to trauma, the baby being conceived by rape, pre-existing mental health conditions, or an inability to cope with caring for a child. In the UK, a woman will be offered counselling and advice before making a decision regarding getting an abortion. Two independent doctors will have to sign off on an assessment of the likely risks to mental health.
Risk to Physical Health
When pregnancies go wrong, they can leave permanent damage on a woman’s body. Sometimes this can be prevented by aborting a foetus in the earlier stages, minimising the risk of damage or impaired fertility. Many women who undergo an abortion for reasons for physical health do so because their fertility is at risk, and if they can abort a foetus at this stage and try again, that is better than taking a risk with the current pregnancy and potentially becoming infertile.
Inability to Care for the Child
Aborting a foetus because of the socio-economic conditions of the mother is not strictly legal in the UK, despite campaigns to make it a right. Many women who suffer from mental health conditions, have poorly paid jobs, or are disabled, do not feel that they can adequately provide for a child and seek to have an abortion instead of bringing them into a miserable world. Opponents would advocate the baby being born and put up for adoption, and this is what the legislation tries to promote. It is the attendant doctor’s discretion and understanding of the woman’s needs that is the decider, and some women do get abortions because of their inability to care for a child if it is deemed that their mental or physical health will be severely adversely affected.
Some women become pregnant after being raped. The prospect of carrying their rapist’s child is very traumatic to many. While they might be sympathetic to the potential child growing in them, understanding it is not their fault, carrying the child to term and possibly raising the child of a rapist is too much for many women. For this reason, abortion in the case of rape is legal in the UK.
Incest is illegal in the UK and is legal grounds for obtaining an abortion. The risk of foetal abnormality doubles if the parents are closely related, rising from 2% to 4%. The stigma and trauma of incestuous relationships is thought to be justification for abortion in the UK.
Women who are older than 40 carry a higher risk of miscarriage and potential complications during pregnancy and birth. Because being over this age is a known risk to health, some women are advised to have abortions if the risk is deemed to high.
The risk to a girl’s health if she is pregnant before the age of 16 is substantially higher than for older girls and women. The lower the age, the less prepared the body is for pregnancy and birth and therefore the risk to the girl’s and child’s life. A girl’s hips might not be wide enough, or if she is still growing, she might not have developed sufficiently to carry a baby to term.
If the foetus has demonstrable abnormalities, for example missing limbs or organs, it is legal to abort in most cases. Conditions like Down’s syndrome can be detected before the baby is born and the option to abort a foetus with developmental problems is offered to women in the UK. This is usually justified by the woman’s ability to get pregnant again and try for a child without abnormalities.
Some women cannot be considered mentally fit to care for a child. This might be due to their low intelligence or brain damage. In this case, a judge will rule on the fitness of the mother to be.