In 1861 Parliament passed the Offences Against The Person Act. Section 58 of the Act made abortion a criminal offence, punishable by imprisonment from three years to life even when performed for medical reasons. No further legal changes occurred in England until 1929. Two successive laws, the Infant Life Preservation Act 1929 and Abortion Act 1967 provide the exceptions to this 1861 Act.
In 1929 the Infant Life Preservation Act amended the law stating it would no longer be regarded as a felony if abortion was carried out in good faith for the sole purpose of preserving the life of the mother. The Act made it illegal to kill a child 'capable of being born live', and enshrined 28 weeks as the age at which a fetus must be presumed to be viable. Importantly the Act allowed a doctor to perform an abortion legally if he/she was 'satisfied that the continuance of the pregnancy was liable to endanger the health of the expectant mother'.
In 1936 the Abortion Law Reform Association was formed by people who believed that abortion legislation was unsatisfactory. The Abortion Law Reform Association recommend that the law should be clarified, as the 1861 Act still on the statute books deemed abortion illegal under all circumstances, while the 1929 Act allowed for abortion in exceptional cases.
In 1938 the Bourne case set the scene for a change of policy on abortion. A young woman was gang raped by a group of soldiers and became pregnant. Dr Alec Bourne agreed to perform an abortion for her and was subsequently prosecuted. Bourne argued that it was necessary to perform the abortion to preserve the health of the young woman. The judge agreed that forcing her to continue with the pregnancy would have been tantamount to wrecking her life. The doctor was not convicted. This case set a legal precedent for performing an abortion to preserve a woman’s mental health.
In the time between the Bourne ruling and the 1967 Abortion Act some women did have abortions for urgent medical reasons or, with the consent of a psychiatrist, to protect their mental health.
Wealthier women were more likely to be able to pay to see a psychiatrist who could agree to a safe abortion, but many would have had no option but to seek illegal methods for ending a pregnancy.
The cost to women’s health of illegal abortion was high with around 40 women dying each year and many more injured. Doctors, politicians and members of some religious communities worked together to pass a law that allowed for abortion in some circumstances.
The Abortion Act was passed in 1967, a time of lively political campaigning, and is sometimes seen as one of the triumphs of the women’s movement. The reality is that it was not passed to give women rights, but to respond to a public health problem.
The law gave the rights and responsibility for decision making to doctors not women. It did not legalise abortion, but allowed for exceptions to the illegality of abortion.
Much of the law is open to interpretation and asks doctors to make a judgement based on weighing up risks rather than specifying particular circumstances in which abortion would be legal.
There have been several attempts in Parliament to restrict abortion law further by those who do not support a woman’s right to choose abortion. Those who do support the right to choose are also unhappy with the law, which is perceived to be unclear and too restrictive.
In 1990 the 1967 Act was amended by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, which reduced the original time limit of 28 weeks to 24 weeks for most abortions.
Though a large majority of people in the UK support the provision of legal abortion, there is still debate about the future of UK abortion law with several groups actively campaigning to reduce or remove the availability of abortion.
Recent debate about the Abortion Act has centred on two possible changes to current legislation:
The removal of the need for a woman to seek permission from two doctors to have an abortion – in order to prevent unnecessary delays for women seeking abortion under 12 weeks.
Further reduction in the upper time limit on abortion. For more information on the development of abortion law around the world see www.cbctrust.com
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