What is current abortion law? I thought abortion was completely legal in England and Wales!

Not exactly, no. The 1861 Offences Against the Person Act made ending a pregnancy a crime punishable by up to life imprisonment. The 1967 Abortion Act provides exemptions to protect women and medical staff if the abortion meets certain criteria – two doctors must approve the abortion on the grounds that continuing the pregnancy will cause greater harm to the woman or her family than terminating the pregnancy, or that the pregnancy has a foetal anomaly.  Any abortion performed without the approval of two doctors is illegal, and women – and medical professionals – can be imprisoned.  

Why do we need to reform the abortion law?

Unfortunately, while abortion is accessible for most women in England and Wales, there are some who simply cannot make it to a clinic or hospital. This includes women with caring responsibilities or who live in remote locations who can’t get to a clinic, women in abusive relationships who are worried their partners will find out if they attend an appointment, and young girls who are afraid to tell their parents. Women in incredibly vulnerable situations experiencing an unwanted pregnancy can feel that they have no option other than to use abortion medication purchased online – risking up to life imprisonment.

Wouldn’t this make abortion less safe for women?

No. We know that women are already using online abortion medication – but, because in doing so they are committing a crime, they are unlikely to seek medical assistance or support if needed. The current law potentially damages women’s health and wellbeing. A range of medical bodies including the Royal College of Midwives, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and the Royal College of GPs all support decriminalising abortion in England and Wales – because clinicians know that the current law does not provide the best possible protection for their patients.

What about women in other parts of the UK – Northern Ireland and Scotland?

In Scotland the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act was never in force, but abortion is still criminalised (under common law offences) if a woman does not meet the criteria of the 1967 Abortion Act. We believe Members of the Scottish Parliament should look at reforming the law in Scotland too.

Abortion was recently decriminalised in Northern Ireland, thanks to a piece of legislation, passed in Westminster, which repealed the underlying criminal code. This means no woman in Northern Ireland will go to prison for ending her own pregnancy before 24 weeks. 

I have more questions – how do I get in touch?

This campaign is run by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, bpas. We are a not-for-profit charity that provides reproductive healthcare on behalf of the NHS, including pregnancy counselling, miscarriage management, contraception, STI testing, and abortion care. We also advocate for women’s reproductive choice. If you have any questions about this campaign, please email policy@bpas.org.