Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Obstetrics and gynaecology

After 50 years of legal abortion in Great Britain, calls grow for further liberalisation

BMJ 2017; 359 doi: (Published 23 November 2017) Cite this as: BMJ 2017;359:j5278
  1. Sally Howard, freelance journalist
  1. London
  1. sal{at}

As the public and healthcare professionals push for decriminalisation, should pregnancy termination be regulated as healthcare rather than by law, as in many other countries? Sally Howard reports

Last month saw the 50 year anniversary of the passing of the 1967 Abortion Act, which legalised termination of pregnancy by registered practitioners in Great Britain provided certain conditions were met.

In the intervening half century British social attitudes towards abortion and British women’s reproductive choices have shifted significantly. In 2016 some 72% of Britons supported a woman’s “right to choose” whether to have an abortion,1 up from 37% in 1983. Women today have fewer children and do so later,2 with little fear of stigmatisation if these children are born out of wedlock.

Abortion procedure has also altered beyond recognition with the use, into the ninth week of pregnancy, of the drugs mifepristone and misoprostol, whose effects do not need to be monitored in a clinical setting.

“Social” abortions are illegal

Despite these shifts and many countries having moved to liberal models of social “abortion on demand,”3 the 1967 Act remains largely unchanged. An increasingly vocal lobby of medical practitioners and campaigners, including the BMA, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), and the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), say that the act is outdated: it excludes social abortions; it restricts abortions to registered medical premises but not primary care settings; and, perhaps most controversially, it does not extend to Northern Ireland.

Some campaigners also complain that the act does not legalise abortion but merely outlines exceptions to the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which makes abortion a criminal offence, punishable by life imprisonment.

Last month, at a conference of medical professionals to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Act convened by the University of Bristol at the RCOG in …

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