27/10/2017 08:35 BST

50 Years After The Abortion Act, Here's The Conditions Women Have To Meet

The 1967 act legalised abortion - but only in a specific circumstances.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act that transformed the law on the issue - but there are still a number of legal hoops that women have to jump through to get a termination.

The 1967 act made it much easier for women in England, Scotland and Wales to access abortions. Before, they were only legal if the pregnancy threatened the mother’s life.

Yet it remains a criminal offence in the UK unless particular conditions are met.

There are a number of obstacles which women have to overcome to be allowed to terminate a pregnancy.

Permission from two doctors

Women wishing to terminate a pregnancy have to seek the permission of two doctors.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) lists the following circumstances that the law allows doctors to carry out an abortion:

  • Continuing the pregnancy would be harmful to the physical or mental health of the woman or her existing children

  • An abortion would be less risky than continuing the pregnancy

  • There is substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer mental abnormality or serious physical handicap.

Two doctors must agree that these grounds are met and they must sign the certificate.

The Women’s Equality Party (WEP) is campaigning against the “unjust and arbitrary requirement for women to get permission from two doctors to terminate their pregnancy”.

Below is an example of the letter that doctors have to sign before a woman can terminate her pregnancy. 


The WEP has written to Home Secretary Amber Rudd asking for the act to be scrapped, saying it “still patronises women 50 years on by forcing them to ask the permission of two doctors”.

Term limit 

Most abortions in England, Wales and Scotland are carried out before 24 weeks of pregnancy.

The NHS says that terminations can only be carried out after this time limit in exceptional circumstances, such as when the mother’s life is at risk. 

Threat of prosecution

Under sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, if a woman ends her pregnancy without the permission of two doctors, she can be sentenced to life in prison.

Campaigners are calling for abortion to be taken out of criminal law and instead be governed as other medical procedures are in the UK, being guided by such bodies as the CQC and General Medical Council.

BPAS’s campaign We Trust Women says: “In the 21st century we should be trusting women to make their own decisions about their own pregnancies, and removing the threat of prosecution from those healthcare professionals providing women with the services and support they need.”

Northern Ireland exception

The 1967 act did not apply to Northern Ireland and abortion remains illegal there except under a narrow set of conditions. As a result many women in Northern Ireland who are seeking an abortion travel to England.

Abortions are permitted in Northern Ireland in order to preserve the life of the mother or if there is a permanent or serious risk to her mental or physical health.

Even if it is determined that the pregnancy was having an adverse effect on a woman’s mental or physical health, it can only be terminated before nine weeks, four days gestation.

Even rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities are not grounds for a legal abortion in Northern Ireland.  

The NHS funds abortion treatment for women from Northern Ireland.