Support for abortion rights hits record high in UK

Leading UK abortion provider says current laws are ‘vastly out of step with public opinion’

Maya Oppenheim
Women’s Correspondent
Thursday 21 September 2023 18:25 BST
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<p>Researchers at the National Centre for Social Research discovered the overwhelming majority of Britons are in favour of a more liberal position than current UK laws stipulate (Alamy/PA)</p>

Researchers at the National Centre for Social Research discovered the overwhelming majority of Britons are in favour of a more liberal position than current UK laws stipulate (Alamy/PA)

Support for the right to have an abortion has grown to a record high in the UK, major new polling has found.

Researchers at the National Centre for Social Research discovered the overwhelming majority of Britons are in favour of a more liberal position than UK laws stipulate.

The British Social Attitudes polling, of more than 2,000 people, found 76 per cent of those surveyed support a woman’s right to have an abortion.

In 1983, just 37 per cent of those surveyed held the same view, but by 2005 the proportion had risen to 60 per cent before increasing to 70 per cent in 2017.

But the perspective is at loggerheads with current UK laws which only allow abortions in restricted circumstances. Abortions are still deemed a criminal act in England, Scotland and Wales under the 1967 Abortion Act.

Legislation passed in 1861 means any woman who ends a pregnancy without getting legal permission from two doctors, who must agree that continuing with it would be risky for the woman’s physical or mental health, can face up to life imprisonment. Any medical professional who delivers an abortion out of the terms of the act can face criminal punishment.

While this is what the law states, in reality, abortions can be given whatever the person’s reasoning for the termination is in the UK.

Abortion providers, charities, medical bodies and MPs have spent years demanding abortion is decriminalised in the UK.

However calls for decriminalisation ramped up in June after Carla Foster, a mother-of-three, was jailed for obtaining drugs to have an abortion after the legal cut-off.

But Ms Foster was released from prison in July after winning an appeal against her sentence - with the Court of Appeal reducing her sentence to 14 months and ruling it should be suspended.

The new polling discovered an “almost universal support for abortions being allowed when the woman’s health is seriously endangered by the pregnancy or when there is a strong chance of the baby having a serious health condition.”

While almost three quarters of those polled supported abortions in situations when the couple cannot afford to have more children.

Clare Murphy, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), a leading UK abortion provider, said the research shows current UK abortion laws are “vastly out of step with public opinion”.

Ms Murphy said the research demonstrates “we are a pro-choice country” as she said support for abortion “may in part be explained by increasing openness about abortion”, as well as “a growing understanding that women cannot control their fertility through contraception alone.”

Ms Murphy added: “Politicians are sometimes fearful of engaging in discussions about abortion on the grounds that it's too ‘controversial’. These results clearly show that this is not the position of those who elect them.”

She noted there are mounting calls for abortion care to be decriminalised and “regulated in the same way as any other form of healthcare”.

It comes after The Independent recently reported on figures that show dozens of women suspected of having illegal abortions have faced criminal investigations from the police in recent years.

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