A survey by the Abortion Law Reform Association, to be published next week, shows that some health authorities are restricting women's access to NHS abortions by using criteria more strict than those set out in the 1967 Abortion Act.
The proportion of abortions that were paid for by the NHS at the 119 health authorities studied ranged from as low as 45 per cent in Solihull to 96 per cent in Northumberland. Seven health authorities admitted to setting additional criteria to encourage women to pay for their own terminations.
"Health authorities are making use of the current law, which is open to far too much interpretation, to avoid offering abortions," said Jane Roe, the association's campaign director. "We don't feel they should be entitled to rewrite the law. They are clearly being judgemental in many of the criteria."
In 1998, 177,871 abortions were carried out in England and Wales, with one-quarter, 45,971, paid for privately.
In Wolverhampton, abortions are offered only to those who have had a failure with an "effective method of contraception", Ms Roe said. "Only women who have been good girls can get an abortion. Those who have not should, as a punishment, be forced to go ahead with a pregnancy," she told the Nursing Times.
Walsall health authority will not fund a third abortion and a woman living in Croydon cannot get one until she is more than 10 weeks pregnant.
The East Sussex, Brighton and Hove health authority limits termination of pregnancy to victims of rape, girls under 16, women on low incomes, students, women in refuges, women over 45, homeless women and women having their fourth or more pregnancy. The authority only funds 53 per cent of abortions, and has been criticised by local GPs for applying means-testing criteria.
Steven Ingram, senior performance manager at the authority, said the criteria were in place "to give equitable access of service and as a way of achieving consistency of referral from GPs". In contrast, Somerset imposes no extra criteria and the maximum time a woman there waits for an abortion is two weeks.
A patient survey, also published next week, shows that long waiting times is the main reason women opt for private-sector abortions. Half of the 400 women surveyed said they had tried unsuccessfully to get an abortion on the NHS before going private.Reuse content