What are the UK's laws on abortion?

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Sarah Ewart challenged Northern Ireland’s abortion laws in the High Court

Abortion laws in Northern Ireland breach the UK’s human rights commitments, the High Court has ruled.

So, what are the laws on abortion in the UK?

What is the abortion law in England, Scotland and Wales?

Abortions can take place in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy in England, Scotland and Wales.

However, they have to be approved by two doctors. They must agree having the baby would pose a greater risk to the physical or mental health of the woman than a termination.

Abortions were illegal before the the introduction of the 1967 Abortion Act, which initially allowed them to take place up to 28 weeks. This was reduced to 24 weeks in 1990.

Abortions after 24 weeks are allowed only if:

  • the woman’s life is in danger
  • there is a severe fetal abnormality
  • the woman is at risk of grave physical and mental injury

Since 2018, women in England have been allowed to take the second of two early abortion pills at home, rather than in a clinic. This brings the rules in line with Scotland and Wales.

What is the law on abortion in Northern Ireland?

Abortions are allowed in Northern Ireland only if:

  • a woman’s life is at risk
  • there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health

An 1861 law made it a criminal offence to procure a miscarriage. In 1945, an exception was added to say abortion could be permitted to preserve the mother’s life.

But rape, incest or diagnoses of fatal fetal abnormality – where medics believe the baby will die before, during or shortly after birth – are not grounds for a legal abortion.

Northern Ireland’s abortion law was challenged in the High Court by Sarah Ewart. She was told she could not have a legal abortion, in 2013, even though doctors said her fetus would not survive outside the womb.

She travelled to England for a termination and spoke of the trauma and expense that had caused her.

In the High Court, Mrs Justice Keegan found in Mrs Ewart’s favour.

Abortion is already due to be decriminalised in Northern Ireland from 21 October. This is because MPs in London voted for legislation that required abortion laws to be changed – unless Northern Ireland’s government is restored beforehand.

Women from Northern Ireland can already have free abortions in England, Scotland and Wales.

In 2018, 1,053 travelled to undergo the procedure in England and Wales.

How many abortions are there?

In 2018, there were 205,295 legal abortions in England and Wales.

A total of 4,687 abortions for non-residents were carried out, a slight increase on the previous year.

The large majority took place in the first 13 weeks of pregnancy. About two-thirds were medically induced, which involves taking two types of tablet to end an unwanted pregnancy.

In Scotland, there were 13,286 abortions.

There were 32 medical abortions in Northern Ireland in 2017-18.

Number of legal abortions

England and Wales, non-residents included

What is the law in other countries?

In the US, a number of Republican-led states have passed stricter abortion legislation this year but none of those laws has taken effect. This is because a number of legal challenges are due to take place.

In Georgia, for example, a judge has temporarily blocked a strict new abortion law that would have banned terminations as early as six weeks into pregnancy.

The law, signed in May by Republican Governor Brian Kemp, was scheduled to come into effect on 1 January.

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Protesters gathered outside the Georgia State Capitol, in Atlanta, in May

Abortion was recently decriminalised across Australia, after New South Wales voted in favour of changing its laws.

Previously, abortions were allowed there only if a doctor ruled there was a “serious” risk to a woman’s health. The new law makes it legal for terminations to be carried out across the country up to 22 weeks into a pregnancy.

In the European Union, there are no common laws on abortion – but in several European countries terminating a pregnancy can still risk punishment.

Around the world, some countries have total bans, including Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Malta.

And Cuba and Uruguay are the only places in Latin America region where women can have abortions during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy regardless of circumstances.