What is abortion?
Abortion is the deliberate killing of an unborn child - and/or a deliberate lethal assault on the child or the child's deliberate lethal removal - at any point following the beginning of that child's life at conception (fertilisation). The child is the target of the procedure which ends its life, as well as ending the pregnancy of its mother. It is not an abortion if an unborn child dies as a side-effect of a legitimate medical operation targeted on a damaged part of the mother (e.g. removal of a cancerous womb where sadly the woman is pregnant and the child inside will die).
What methods of abortion are used?
Abortion is usually done by using drugs or surgical tools to remove the baby from the mother’s body. Some of the common methods of abortion used in Britain include: vacuum aspiration (suction abortion); dilation and curettage (D&C); dilation and evacuation (D&E); RU486 (mifepristone), including with a prostaglandin (misoprostol). See our section on the methods of abortion.
Can some birth control methods cause abortion?
Hormonal birth control, such as the morning-after pill, implants and injectables, may cause early abortions, by stopping an unborn child from implanting in the womb. Many women and couples are unaware that even methods aimed at stopping ovulation (the release of an egg) can also cause an abortion if an embryo is conceived after ‘breakthrough’ ovulation.
Why do women have abortions?
Nearly all abortions are carried out in the UK for social reasons. Such reasons include financial pressures, feelings of being unable to cope and pressure from a partner or family not to give birth. In a small minority of cases the reason given for abortion relates to worries about how a woman’s physical health will be affected by not having an abortion.
What is the legal situation on abortion in Britain?
In Britain the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 (Sections 58 and 59) outlawed abortion. The law subsequently became more permissive, above all following the Abortion Act 1967 (subsequently amended by the Health Services Act 1980 and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990). The law in England, Wales and Scotland (Northern Ireland, where the Abortion Act does not apply, is much more restrictive) allows for abortion up to birth in certain cases such as ‘serious’ disability of the baby.
In practice there is what amounts to abortion on demand before 24 weeks in other, ‘social’ cases, thanks to the clause in the Abortion Act referring to a woman’s mental or physical health being interpreted as including anything that may be unwelcome to the mother. This is despite the fact that there is no evidence that abortion helps a woman’s mental health, which it can indeed harm (see the question on the effects of abortion below). In Britain most abortions are performed in the first third of pregnancy.
How many abortions are there a year?
The total number of abortions in England, Wales and Scotland in 2014 was 201,567, the vast majority of which were carried out on Ground C which requires the risk to a mother’s mental or physical health from abortion to be less than that from normal pregnancy. For information on how ‘mental health’ is used to justify social abortion, see SPUC’s miscertification campaign.
What about back-street abortions?
It is often claimed that many women died from illegal 'back-street' abortions before the abortion law was liberalised. In fact, relatively few women were dying by the time of the Abortion Act, and after it came into force, the overall trend in the number of women dying from all causes in their main childbearing years continued to decline steadily: there was no sudden, marked decline. This trend was also seen in other countries, where medical advances such as antibiotics were already bringing down maternal deaths, whether or not abortion was legalised.
In 1966, the Council of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) showed that in 1962, approximately 14,600 women in England and Wales had received hospital treatment for the consequences of criminal abortion. The RCOG Council commented: “It has been repeatedly stated that as many as 100,000 criminal abortions are induced in this country each year, and a more recent estimate s 250,000. These, and an earlier figure of 50,000, are without any secure factual foundation of which we are aware.”
Northern Ireland, where the law on abortion is very restrictive, has had no maternal deaths from illegal abortion recorded in over 20 years. Other countries with strict abortion laws such as the Republic of Ireland, Chile and Poland also have a good maternal health record when compared with their neighbours.
The back-street abortion argument does not justify legalising abortion, any more than the prevalence of violence against women justifies legalising such violence so it can be ‘more safely’ carried out. There will always be some who break the law, but acts that seriously harm others must be prevented as best we can - not just by means of the law but by positive support for individuals and families at risk.
Why oppose abortion?
Abortion involves the killing of an innocent and vulnerable human being in the very place where he/she should be most protected.
Scientists agree that once the sperm has fertilised the egg, a new being with a fully human genetic make-up has been created. However, in abortion the humanity of the unborn child is either rejected or ignored.
We need to show solidarity with the vulnerable, especially when their very humanity is being denied. To oppose abortion is to honour the inherent dignity of the human being no matter what his/her present abilities. It is also to acknowledge the very special bond between a pregnant woman and her child: women need support, not abortion.
What if the child is ‘unwanted’?
Anyone might be said to be “unwanted” by other people at any stage of their life. Toddlers, adolescents and the elderly can all be ‘unwanted’ by someone in their family, for example. That does not mean that they should be killed. Being wanted by others cannot be a condition for having a right to life, as this would make it a purely arbitrary right. Our right to life relates to the fact that we are human beings – members of the human species, rational animals. Our value as human beings does not depend on our abilities or on whether other people ‘want’ us.
What about rape?
Rape is a foul and indefensible crime, and must be punished justly under law. Nor should we ever forget the very real consequences that can come with a pregnancy resulting from rape. But abortion is not a solution to rape; it does not 'un-rape' a woman. The experience cannot be undone and should be responded to with compassion and support.
Abortion is itself a violent and invasive procedure. It should be remembered that many women who are traumatised by abortion describe a sense of having been violated. Moreover, it is not acceptable as a society to kill a child for the crime of his/her father. A child may be conceived as the result of rape but cannot be held responsible.
There is a real concern that abortion providers are not primarily interested in abortion for rape victims but use them as a political tool. Those who advocate abortion on demand want abortion to be available to anyone, regardless of the circumstances. The use of rape victims is exploitative and trivialises the terrible damage done to women by rape. What makes rape a terrible crime is not the child's fault but the fact that a person has been subjected to a violent and humiliating attack.
What is pre-natal testing/screening?
Pre-natal tests are tests carried out on the pregnant woman which allow people to identify whether the unborn child has a particular medical condition. They are typically carried out with a view to aborting any child who does have such a condition. Clearly such tests seek to eliminate a certain class of human beings many of whom will have their lives taken merely for being disabled. As well as discriminating lethally against disabled people, such practices give out a wider social message that some lives are inherently worth less than others.
What are some of the effects of abortion?
The effect of abortion on the unborn child is death. The effect of abortion on the mother will vary from woman to woman. There are short-term and longer-term physical risks and also short and longer-term psychological risks such as grief, guilt, depression, anger, numbness and other painful reactions. Some researchers and also post-abortion counsellors working for organisations such as ARCH (Abortion Recovery Care and Helpline) use terms like post-abortion trauma or post-abortion syndrome to describe some of the psychological harms recorded in post-abortive women.
What about unwanted children?
When a pregnancy is unwanted, it often leads to abortion. Although everyone needs to be wanted - to be valued and esteemed by others - your right to life should not depend on whether someone else "wants" you, even your mother or father. Besides, an unwanted pregnancy, when not aborted, will nearly always result in a baby who is cherished and cared for.
What about a woman's right to choose?
The culture in our society of "a woman's right to choose" is used to justify abortion as a commonplace occurrence. Many women feel that they have no choice except abortion because society does not promote childbearing as a positive solution to a crisis pregnancy. Women who have abortions are not given objective information about the humanity of the child in the womb, the possible physical and psychological complications of abortion and the reality of post-abortion trauma. There is no legal requirement for abortion counsellors to tell the woman about her other options. Women who "choose" abortion are therefore not given the opportunity to make a truly informed choice based on a range of options.