With 2017 marking 50 years since the enactment of the Abortion Act, leading doctors at the BMA’s annual conference today considered the role of the criminal law in abortion and backed calls for the decriminalisation1 of abortion.
Removing criminal sanctions specific to abortion does not mean an absence of regulation; limits could still be set, but subject to professional and regulatory, rather than criminal, sanctions. Doctors asked the BMA to give further consideration to the significance of viability in relation to the role of the criminal law2.
Criminal and civil laws that apply to other aspects of clinical care would also continue to apply to abortion. For example, supplying abortion drugs without a prescription would be a criminal offence under the UK-wide Human Medicines Regulation 2012.
The debate today and the BMA’s new policy only relate to whether abortion should or should not be a criminal offence; it does not address the broader issue of when and how abortion should be available. The BMA has established policy on these issues which remain unchanged as a result of this debate.3
Following the result of the vote, Dr John Chisholm, BMA medical ethics committee chair said:
“This is clearly a sensitive and complex issue, on which doctors voiced a broad range of views during an informed and considered debate.
“Abortion is currently a crime, with exceptions, throughout the UK. Following the debate the majority of doctors were clear that abortion should be treated as a medical issue rather than a criminal one.
“What must be clear is that decriminalisation does not mean deregulation. The debate today and the BMA’s new policy only relate to whether abortion should or should not be a criminal offence; the policy does not address the broader issue of when and how abortion should be available. The BMA has established policy on these issues which remains unchanged.3”
Notes to editor:
The British Medical Association (BMA) is the voice of doctors and medical students in the UK. It is an apolitical professional organisation and independent trade union, representing doctors and medical students from all branches of medicine across the UK and supporting them to deliver the highest standards of care.
Induced abortion is currently a crime throughout the UK, although the Abortion Act 1967 provides exceptions to the crime of administering or procuring an abortion in England, Wales and Scotland, and the common law allows some exceptions in Northern Ireland.
Viability is the stage at which a fetus is capable of independent existence outside a pregnant woman’s uterus. The concept of viability underpinned much of the debate resulting in the current 24-week time limit in the Abortion Act. The BMA supports this time limit.
The BMA’s existing views and policy can be found in the BMA’s publication The law and ethics of abortion: BMA views. Available at www.bma.org.uk/ethics