Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.


Key dates on way to legalisation

ABORTION was first made illegal in Britain in the early 1800s.

1861: In an effort to stem the number of deaths caused by 'back-street' abortions, the Offences against the Persons Act made it illegal to 'procure a miscarriage'. Anyone who supplied or used 'poison or other noxious thing or other means' to induce abortion was guilty of a crime carrying a penalty of life imprisonment.

During this time, business in illegal abortions was thriving, as was the sale of 'women's remedies', which caused severe irritation to the stomach and bowel and, possibly, a miscarriage. Do-it-yourself abortions were also popular, with women using crochet hooks, knitting needles, soap or lead solutions. Hot baths, drinking gin, heavy blows to the back and kicks, or pressure on the abdomen, were also employed.

1936: The Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA) was formed. It aimed to lift restrictions on doctors so they could offer safe, legal abortions.

1938: A gynaecologist, Dr Aleck Bourne, challenged the law by inviting police to prosecute him for carrying out an abortion on a 14-year-old rape victim. Dr Bourne was acquitted on the grounds that he acted to preserve her life - the first time the health of the woman had been accepted in law as grounds for abortion. Women's organisations began backing ALRA campaign.

1939: A government-appointed committee, chaired by Norman Birkett, recommended that the law on abortion should be amended, but the outbreak of the Second World War prevented any reforms taking place, and the debate subsided.

1960s: The Thalidomide tragedy, and the birth of deformed babies, refocused attention on the abortion debate.

1966: David Steel MP - the former Liberal leader, knighted in 1990 - decided to sponsor an abortion law reform Bill, despite vociferous opposition from politicians, religious groups and many doctors.

1967: The Abortion Act is passed, legalising abortion under certain criteria in England, Scotland and Wales (but not in Northern Ireland or the Isle of Man, or Channel Islands).

1968: The Act comes into effect on 27 April.

1974: Lane Committee report on the working of the Act is published, backing it and its provisions.

1990: The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act is passed, introducing an upper time limit of 24 weeks, instead of 28 weeks, for most abortions.