The law and ethics of abortion

Information on the law and ethics of abortion and BMA policy, including decriminalisation.

Location: UK
Audience: All doctors
Updated: Monday 19 July 2021
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BMA policy on abortion

This guidance summarises the law and ethics of abortion in the UK. It shows the legal frameworks in place and the rights and responsibilities of doctors.

It also sets out BMA policy on:

  • time limits for abortion
  • discrimination (see below)
  • ‘buffer zones’ around abortion clinics
  • the provision of counselling services and on the Abortion Act 1967.

We recognise the different opinions of our membership on abortion. Although representing members with a wide range of views, the BMA has clear democratic mechanisms for creating policy through its representative body.

BMA policy on the decriminalisation of abortion

In 2017, we agreed policy that abortion should be 'decriminalised'. This means it would be regulated in the same way as other medical treatments. The policy was reaffirmed in 2019.

It states that abortion:

  1. should be decriminalised in respect of health professionals administering abortions within the context of their clinical practice
  2. should be decriminalised in respect of women procuring and administering the means of their own abortion.

To inform the debate, we published a neutral discussion paper and an update in 2017.These provide a useful overview to some of the key legal and ethical issues.

Decriminalised does not mean unregulated

Abortion is subject to specific regulations and to professional and clinical standards.

The professional standards, regulations and criminal and civil laws that apply to all other areas of clinical practice also apply to abortion. Decriminalisation does not mean deregulation.

For example, if abortion is decriminalised, it will continue to be an offence to sell or supply abortion-causing drugs without a valid prescription given by an appropriate practitioner.

Our position paper explains in more detail how abortion will be regulated in the United Kingdom if it was decriminalised.