A Brief History of Abortion in the UK
Abortion - Death Penalty?
It may come as a shock to you to find out that for many centuries this country gave the death penalty to women who had abortions.
At first the Ellenborough Act (1803), the legislation defining this law, stated that abortions will only deserve the death penalty if it they occurred after 'quickening' - the time at which the 'soul' was believed to enter a baby's body.
In 1837, this clause was removed so that it didn't matter whether or not quickening had occurred.
It was only in 1861 that in The Offences Against the Person Act the law was changed to only allow the maximum of life imprisonment for abortions.
The act that stated that abortions were acceptable if the mother's life was at risk only came about in 1929, where it was stated that this was the only mitigation possible.
What Were the Results of Banning Abortion?
Although the banning of abortion made it illegal, it didn't reduce the amount of unwanted pregnancies and the great demand for abortion.
Because of its illegality, many women took to backstreet methods of receiving abortions which resulted in:
In the years 1923-1933, 20% of maternal deaths were due to women self-aborting.
Important Facts about Today's Laws
- Mother's Ruling - it is only the mother's decision for the fetus' fate that is taken into account, the father's opinion is not given any notice.
- Age - only in certain circumstances can a girl under the age of 16 have an abortion without her parents' consent.
- Doctors - doctors do not actually have a legal obligation to perform abortions, if they are morally against the procedure then the only thing that is mandatory is the referral to a doctor that will perform abortions.
- England, Scotland and Wales - the 1967 and 1990 acts do not apply to Northern Ireland, where abortion laws are less clear. As a result, many Irish women travel to a different component of the UK to get an abortion performed. This makes the laws in Ireland even more controversial, since now they are only adding extra difficulty to mothers who may already have some of the most difficult situations to deal with in the modern era.
What Happened Next?
By the 1930s people and the government were finally starting to get concerned that so many women were dying because of this ban and with the help of pressure groups like the Conference of Co-operative Women and the Abortion Law Reform Association, people started to question whether or not the ban was justified.
With the acquittal of a doctor who was cleared of his charges for performing an abortion on a gang-raped 14 year old, a new clause (through Common Law) was formed in which women could get abortions if not getting the abortion would affect their mental healths.
However, in order for a woman to prove that her mental health would be affected, she would need to have had a psychiatrist's approval - something only the wealthy women at the time could afford to do.
Then, it was finally in 1968 that the Abortion Act with the backing of David Steel MP came into effect. This act was a clear allowance for women to have abortions under certain conditions.
1975 and the National Abortion Campaign (NAC)
The NAC was made to protect the 1967 act against anti-choice/pro-life pressure groups like the ALRA which tried to repeal the pro-abortion act many times.
Thanks to the work of the NAC, a lot of support grew for the reform of the 1967 abortion act and in 1991, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill was put into effect, outlining specific time-limits on the legality of abortion.
To date, as specified in the 1990 law, it is only legal to have an abortion before a fetus is 24 weeks old.