Q&A: Abortion law

Downing Street has said there are no plans to change the legal limit on abortions after the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt revealed he would favour a reduction from 24 to 12 weeks. Campaigners have vowed to re-open the fight to tighten up the laws but pro-choice groups have criticised his remarks. But what are the issues in the debate and how has the law changed over the years?

Where does the current law stand?

A private member's bill brought by David Steel MP led to the Abortion Act 1967, which is still the law governing abortions in England, Scotland and Wales.

Technically the law did not legalise abortions, but rather provided a legal defence for those carrying them out.

Abortions can legally be performed under certain conditions - the first is that continuing with the pregnancy involves a greater risk to the physical or mental health of the woman, or her existing children, than having a termination.

The woman's "actual or reasonably foreseeable future environment" may be taken into account.

An abortion must be agreed by two doctors (or one in an emergency) and carried out by a doctor in a government-approved hospital or clinic.

Does the law apply in Northern Ireland?

Unlike the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland does not have an Abortion Act. Instead an 1861 law makes it a criminal offence to procure a miscarriage.

In 1945 an exception was added that abortion could be permitted to preserve the life of the mother. Abortions are also allowed if continuing with the pregnancy will result in other serious physical or mental health effects.

Despite the fact that between 30 and 40 medical terminations are carried out by the NHS in Northern Ireland every year, the exact circumstances in which is it is allowed remain vague.

Revised official guidelines initially drafted in in 2010 have still not been completed and published.

Sections on counselling and conscientious objection were withdrawn for rewriting. The Family Planning Association has been granted leave to seek a judicial review of the Department of Health's decision not to publish information on terminations.

Has the 1967 law ever been updated?

Yes, via the Human Embryology and Human Fertilisation Act 1990, which was brought in primarily to control new infertility treatments and to monitor experiments on embryos.

A section of the Act also lowered the legal time limit for abortions from 28 to 24 weeks, deemed to be the point at which a foetus was "viable".

The Act also clarified under which special circumstances abortions could be carried out at a later stage.

Abortions after 24 weeks are allowed if there is grave risk to the life of the woman; evidence of severe foetal abnormality; or risk of grave physical and mental injury to the woman.

What happened in the last vote on the issue?

In 2008, MPs voted on cutting the limit for the first time since 1990.

The vote saw MPs of all parties have a free say on the issue and were on a series of amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.

There were calls for a reduction to 12, 16, 20 or 22 weeks, but MPs rejected the proposals in a series of votes.

Those in favour of a change said babies born at 24 weeks were increasingly likely to survive, and it should therefore not be permitted to abort pregnancies at this stage. Right-to-life groups add that efforts should be made to save every life.

But those arguing against a reduction cited studies, including one published in the British Medical Journal, showing that while survival rates had increased significantly for babies born at 24 and 25 weeks, they had not risen for babies born 23 weeks or less.

Very few terminations take place at this stage of pregnancy, but those in favour of keeping the limit as it is argue that it is often the 20 week scan which reveals severe abnormalities.

Have there been any significant rulings since the vote?

In July 2011, the High Court ordered the government to publish data revealing the number of late abortions carried out in England and Wales.

The Prolife Alliance anti-abortion group had been fighting for details of the medical reasons for abortions over 24 weeks to be released since 2005.

The 1967 Abortion Act makes it legal to abort a foetus right up to birth if there is a substantial risk of "serious" physical or mental abnormality.

But the government said it had feared identifying women concerned, because of the low numbers of cases.

The data it was eventually made to publish revealed there were 147 late abortions carried out in 2010.

Why was the issue of abortion counselling recently debated?

Women seeking an abortion need the consent of two doctors, either through an NHS clinic or GP surgery, or at a private provider affiliated to the NHS, such as Marie Stopes or BPAS. Staff have a duty to provide impartial and objective counselling.

But in September 2011, MPs rejected a bid by Tory MP Nadine Dorries to stop abortion providers giving NHS-funded counselling to women.

She said it was about offering women more choice, but she was accused of trying to "import American sensationalism" to the abortion debate.

The government said it would consult on improving abortion counselling for women.

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