January 26, 2017, by Charlotte Anscombe
Fifty Years of the 1967 Abortion Act: Time to rethink
Dr Anne-Marie Kramer from the School of Sociology and Social Policy looks at the 1967 Abortion Act as it reaches its 50th anniversary this week.
The 1967 Abortion Act allows abortion under certain conditions and on certain grounds. It requires that two doctors certify that an abortion is appropriate. The conditions under which they can make that judgment are as follows:
- Risk to physical and mental health of the woman
- Risk to physical and mental health of the woman’s existing children
- Risk of grave physical and mental injury to the woman
- Risk to life of woman
- Foetal abnormality
In the first two cases the upper time limit was reduced from 28 weeks to 24 weeks by the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act since the foetus is now deemed viable at the lower limit of 24 weeks.
It has been argued that the introduction of the 1967 Abortion Act was stimulated by the attempt to reduce deaths and serious injury caused by illegal abortions. Before the Abortion Act an estimated 10,000 women were paying Harley Street doctors annually to perform abortions and many more women who couldn’t afford these fees were paying for backstreet abortions: around 35,000 women were being treated annually by the NHS after things had gone wrong. By the mid 1960s unsafe abortion was the leading cause of avoidable maternal death. In addition to safeguarding women’s health, the 1967 Abortion Act was designed to protect doctors who carry out abortions from prosecution.
The introduction of the Act was then not stimulated by any desire to give women control over their reproduction, or to enable women to separate sexuality from reproduction. Women in the UK do not have the right to abortion ‘on demand’, or to ‘choose’ an abortion. In fact, it is the only routine medical procedure which requires the authorisation of two doctors, in addition to informed consent.
In fact, under the terms of Sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act, abortion – for any reason – remains illegal:
Every woman, being with child, who, with intent to procure her own miscarriage, shall unlawfully administer to herself any poison or unlawfully use any instrument shall be liable to be kept in penal servitude for life.
This is significant because the 1861 Act remains in effect in Northern Ireland, where the 1967 Abortion Act does not apply, and where women currently face prosecution because they have bought abortion pills online:
For this and other reasons, the ‘We Trust Women’ campaign aims to decriminalise abortion.
Social attitudes on the issue of abortion have changed significantly since 1967. In 1983, the British Social Attitudes survey found that 37% of the public supported a woman’s ‘right to choose’, while the most recent survey on this issue found that this had risen to 62%.
The 1967 Abortion Act is thus not reflective of public opinion, nor in tune with laws on abortion in the majority of Europe, where with a few notable exceptions, including Poland and the Republic of Ireland, abortion is permitted without restriction as to reason.
For these and other reasons, it is time to revisit the 1967 Abortion Act.