Abortion rights: What are the laws in the UK and what support does NHS offer?

‘If you’re under 16, your parents do not usually need to be told,’ NHS says

<p>Legislation passed in 1861 means any woman who ends a pregnancy without getting legal permission from two doctors can face up to life imprisonment</p>

Legislation passed in 1861 means any woman who ends a pregnancy without getting legal permission from two doctors can face up to life imprisonment

To the great fury, consternation and surprise of many around the world, millions of women in America lost their legal right to terminate a pregnancy on Friday.

The US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade - the landmark decision that legalised abortion nationwide in 1973 - means over half of US states are expected to ban abortion or heavily restrict policies in the wake of the decision. Some states are set to ban abortions even when a pregnancy is as a result of rape or incest.

The overhaul of US abortion law may have left some unsure of exactly how legislation on abortion works here in the UK so The Independent has summarised the situation for those feeling uncertain.

What are the UK laws on abortion?

Abortions can legally be carried out within the first 24 weeks of pregnancy in England, Scotland and Wales.

Pregnancy terminations can only be performed after the 24 week cut off point in a highly limited number of contexts - such as when the mother’s life is at risk or the child will have a severe disability.

Abortions must be approved by two doctors, with the health professionals agreeing continuing with the pregnancy would be riskier for the physical or mental health of the woman than having an abortion.

But the 1967 Abortion Act, which meant pregnancy terminations were legal in the UK, was never widened out to include Northern Ireland. Abortion was banned in almost all circumstances, even rape and incest, with women seeking terminations facing life imprisonment, until the procedure was legalised in Northern Ireland in October 2019.

What criticisms are directed at the way current abortion law works in the UK?

Abortions are still deemed a criminal act in England, Scotland and Wales under the 1967 Abortion Act. If any medical professional delivers an abortion out of the terms of the 1967 act, they are at risk of facing criminal punishment.

While legislation passed in 1861 means any woman who ends a pregnancy without getting legal permission from two doctors can face up to life imprisonment.

For years, abortion providers, charities, medical bodies, and MPs have been calling for abortion to be decriminalised in the UK. They want to see abortion law extricated from criminal law and monitored in the same way that other medical practices are - with the British Medical Association in favour of the decriminalisation of abortion in the UK.

Previous research from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), the UK’s largest abortion provider, discovered doctors think Britain’s “outdated” abortion law hampers their ability to provide the best care for women. The report also found doctors think rules such as making two doctors sign off abortion forms give rise to delays, with researchers also discovering the threat of prosecution makes doctors less likely to pursue a career in this area of medicine.

Although abortion is criminalised in the UK, in Northern Ireland it has now been decriminalised.

How do you go about accessing an abortion in the UK?

There are two types of abortion: a medical abortion and a surgical abortion. While having a medical abortion involves taking two tablets, a a surgical abortion refers to a procedure - referred to as a “minor operation” by BPAS - to remove the pregnancy.

Prior to the pandemic, getting the first tablet, mifepristone, for a medical abortion required a visit to an abortion clinic. But after Covid hit, the government allowed the medication to be sent by post to be taken at home after a phone consultation, a system referred to as “telemedicine”.

The NHS website states there are three main ways to get an abortion - noting you can get in touch directly with an abortion provider, such as the aforementioned BPAS, MSI Reproductive Choices UK, the National Unplanned Pregnancy Advisory Service (NUPAS).

Another option is to go to a GP and asked to be referred to an abortion service, or thirdly to contact a sexual health clinic to ask them to refer you for an abortion.

What support can you get from the NHS for having an abortion?

The NHS states any woman seeking an abortion “can discuss their options with, and receive support from, a trained pregnancy counsellor if they wish”. It notes “impartial information and support” can be sought via a GP or another doctor working at your GP practice, or through “a counselling service at the abortion clinic” or “organisations such as Brook (for under-25s), BPAS, MSI Reproductive Choices UK and NUPAS”.

The NHS continues: “You may also want to speak to your partner, friends or family, but you do not have to. They do not have a say in your decision. If you do not want to tell anyone, your details will be kept confidential.

“If you’re under 16, your parents do not usually need to be told. The doctor or nurse may encourage you to tell a parent, carer or other adult you trust, but they will not make you.”

The article was amended on 30 June 2022. It previously stated that some states were set to ban abortions even when the woman’s life was at risk due to pregnancy complications. This was not accurate: there are exceptions for when the mother’s life is at risk. However, there is also now an ongoing debate as to how this will be interpreted.

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