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Abortion in Britain

Until 1967 abortion was illegal in Britain, except to save the life of the mother. In 1967 Parliament passed the Abortion Act, which, it was said, would allow abortion for a few women who were in very difficult circumstances. The number of abortions performed the first year after the Abortion Act was passed has since risen dramatically. Now more than 200,000 babies are aborted each year. That's over 16,000 a month; nearly 4,000 a week; almost 600 each day.

In 1968, according to Government figures, there were 23,641 abortions in England and Wales. In 2017, there were 194,668 of which 189,859 were residents. [ The “Abortion Statistics, England and Wales: 2017” published by the Department of Health & Social Care states that there were an estimated 3000 additional abortions that took place in 2017 that are not included in these figures or those detailed below. Including these would give an estimated 197,700 total abortions and 192,000 for England and Wales residents.] There were 12,212 abortions in Scotland, making a total of 206,880 abortions performed in the UK. During the year, 919 women from Northern Ireland and 3,092 from the Irish Republic travelled for abortion on the mainland.

Of 189,859 abortions on England and Wales residents, 98% of were funded by the NHS, (70% of these  in the independent sector under NHS contract.)  Figures available for 2010 – the last year for which there are available figures for total abortion rates –  showed that taxpayers in England and Wales spent £118m on abortions, of which £75m went to private clinics and £44m to NHS bodies. The NHS spent over £50m on repeat abortions.

Under two per cent (3158) of the abortions performed on residents of England and Wales were carried out because of suspected disability, 20 per cent of these for suspected Down's syndrome.  

“Injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman” was the ground given for 185,448 of the 189,859 abortions carried out on residents of England and Wales (98 per cent).  The vast majority these terminations were reported as being performed because of a risk to the woman’s mental health.  In other words, 98% of all abortions were “social abortions” performed on the grounds that “that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the mental health of the pregnant woman.”  But a review published by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (AMRC) tells us that there is no evidence that the continuance of a pregnancy ever involves risk to the mental health of the mother that is ‘greater than if the pregnancy were terminated’. Peter Saunders, writing in Christian Medical Comment concludes that (then) 97% of UK abortions are technically illegal. 

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73,582 (39%) of the 189859 abortions to residents of England and Wales had already had at least one abortion and 1,648 of these had already had four or more previous abortions; 72 women were having at least their ninth abortion.  

510 girls aged 17 or under who had an abortion in 2017 had already had one or more previous abortions.

In 2014, for the first time, more abortions were performed medically (ie induced via a pill) than surgically, giving rise to concerns that abortion will be further regarded as just a form of contraception - even though medical abortion is still a method of taking the life of an unborn child. In 2017 medical abortions accounted for 65% of the total for residents of England and Wales.

Full 2017 figures for England and Wales                 Full 2017 figures for Scotland

These figures do not include early abortions caused by the morning-after pill and some so-called contraceptives, for instance, the IUD, and at times, the pill, which allow fertilisation but prevent subsequent implantation of the embryo in the uterus.

Abortions using the abortion pill continued to rise, despite concerns about the pill's safety. Three British women have died after taking the pill and 79 have had adverse reactions since 1991. There have been calls in the United States for the pill to be banned on safety grounds.

Over eight million babies have been killed by surgical or medical abortion in Britain since 1967. One in five pregnancies in Britain now ends in abortion. Abortion is now permitted up to birth in certain cases.

On 19th July 2012, in a written answer to Lord Alton, the Department of Health wrote, “ Between 1968 and 2011 (the latest year for which figures are available) there have been 6.4 million abortions performed on residents of England and Wales. Of these, 143 (0.006%) were performed under Section 1(4), ie where the termination is immediately necessary to save the life of the pregnant woman or to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman.”

The circumstances in which the 1967 legislation permitted abortion were amended by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, 1990. Abortion is now permitted if two doctors certify that abortion is justified on one or more of the following grounds:


A - the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk to the life of the pregnant women greater than if the pregnancy were terminated.

B - the termination is necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman.

C - the pregnancy has NOT exceeded its 24th week and that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman.

D - the pregnancy has NOT exceeded its 24th week and that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the existing child(ren) of the family of the pregnant woman.

E - there is substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.


F - it was necessary to save the life of the woman.

G - it was necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman.


The majority of surgical abortions are performed by vacuum suction. The cervix is dilated, a tube inserted into the uterus and a powerful suction machine suctions the baby in pieces from the womb into a container. - Selective termination of one or more, but not all, fetuses in a multiple pregnancy is also permitted.


Some babies are aborted by dilation and curettage (D & C). The cervix is dilated, a loop-shaped steel knife is inserted in the uterus and the baby scraped out in pieces. In later pregnancies, dilatation and evacuation (D & E) is used. After the cervix is dilated, forceps are used to pull the baby out in pieces. An instrument is then inserted to crush the skull so the head can be removed. It is necessary to check that every part of the body has been removed so that infection does not occur. Some babies are aborted using RU486, also known as the abortion pill.

In late pregnancies, the mother will be given prostaglandin, inducing labour in order to produce a dead baby. A poison may be used to prevent a live birth. An alternative is hysterotomy, a surgical procedure similar to a Caesarean section, but with the intention of producing a dead baby rather than a live one.

Fewer than half of the abortions in the UK are performed on NHS premises, and the remainder in private abortion clinics, owned most often by companies like the Pregnancy Advisory Service, British Pregnancy Advisory Service and Marie Stopes. Because these companies are usually registered as charities, they are exempt from direct taxation, and receive substantial financial support, indirectly from the taxpayer, for abortions contracted out to them from the NHS. There are some 70 referral agencies licensed by the Government to offer advice on abortion. The majority of them are controlled by the same proprietors as the abortion clinics.

Pro-life organisations point out that human life begins at fertilisation. Every cell in the human body contains 46 chromosomes. A male sperm contains 23 chromosomes. A female ovum contains 23 chromosomes. When the two come together, they form a single cell with 46 chromosomes - 23 from the father and 23 from the mother. The sex of the new human being, his or her physical characteristics, height, colour of hair, colour of eyes, are already determined by the contents of that single cell. Shortly after fertilisation the cell begins to divide and multiply. One cell divides into two, two into four, four into eight. Nothing is added to that single cell until that single cell becomes a mature adult. To prevent the continuing growth of that cell at any stage is to terminate human life.

Three weeks after fertilisation, the baby's heart starts to beat and the mouth is beginning to open. Six weeks after fertilisation, electrical impulses from the brain can be recorded. By this time the baby has eyes, ears and internal organs. During the second month, the child begins to move and responds to touch. Facial features are forming. At two months, the baby can swim vigorously in the fluid which surrounds it. He, or she, has fingers and toes. During the third month, the child has fingerprints. He can turn his head, curl his toes, open and close his mouth and make a tight fist. Fingernails and toenails appear. He drinks, digests and urinates. Sexual differences can be distinguished. Most abortions are carried out between nine and 12 weeks.

Pro-lifers complain that women seeking abortion are not told that what is within them is a living child. Doctors seeking to spare women's feelings tell them 'It's just a clump of cells.' Abortion clinics tell women it is not yet a baby. Women are often not advised of the nature of the operation. They know that they are to have an abortion, but very often do not understand that it involves the dismembering of a living child. Women are often not warned of possible ill effects of abortion.

Pro-abortion organisations are campaigning for easier access to abortion and for free access to abortion on the National Health Service whenever it is needed. They want the law changed to allow abortion with the approval of only one doctor instead of two as at present, to allow nurses and midwives to be able to perform abortions in the early stages of pregnancy as well as doctors, to allow abortions to be performed other than on licensed premises, for instance in doctors' surgeries, and for the amended abortion law to be extended to Northern Ireland.

There is increasing pressure on politicians to reduce the upper age limit of 24 weeks where there is no suspected handicap, but there is a concern that if the upper age limit were reduced, early abortions would be made easier, with more abortions in total.

In 2008, attempts were made to use the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill as a vehicle to change abortion law. Attempts to reduce the 24-week upper limit for so-called social abortions were defeated. The Government did not allow time for further amendments to abortion law to be debated and voted on by MPs at the bill's third reading.

There are now 150 Christian pregnancy centres in Britain offering counsel and help. LIFE have a further 130 centres.

The effects of abortion

A report in 1994 by the commission of inquiry into the operation and consequences of the Abortion Act said physical effects of abortion can include perforation of the uterus, increased risk of miscarriage, and tubal infection, which is the most common cause of infertility. Women commonly suffer emotionally after abortion from what has come to be known as post-abortion syndrome.

A woman may have had an abortion for what she felt were the best of reasons. Perhaps she was young and still dependent; perhaps she felt her education or her career would be ruined. Perhaps her partner insisted, and threatened to leave if she didn't. Perhaps she felt she couldn't afford a baby; perhaps she had several children already. Perhaps she was told her baby would be handicapped; perhaps she was told she couldn't cope.

The feeling immediately after an abortion is usually one of relief. But emotional reactions may follow which can surprise the woman in their intensity. They may surface at different times - even a considerable time after the abortion - and in different ways. They may include grief, feelings of guilt and remorse, anxiety, depression, anger at husband, partner, family, doctor or other children, feelings of low self-worth, loneliness, emptiness or despair, sleeplessness, constant crying, excessive activity, eating disorders or problems with sex and relationships. These are symptoms of what is known as post-abortion syndrome.

Women sometimes try to bury these feelings. The abortion may have been a secret, or the woman may be afraid to talk about it in case she is judged or in case people do not understand. There is help available. The first step is to admit there is a problem and begin to talk about it with someone who does understand. Image provides free post-abortion counselling with experienced counsellors who understand the problem and are trained to help.

You can contact us on image's confidential telephone helpline.  We offer support for crisis pregnancy and after abortion (we do not refer for termination). For further details, click on Pregnancy helpline.