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Defending life
from conception to natural death


UK Abortion History

In 1938, a London gynaecologist, Aleck Bourne, tested the laws by performing an abortion on a 14-year-old girl who had been sexually assaulted by five off-duty British soldiers. Dr Bourne was a supporter of the Abortion Law Reform Association.

He was charged with an illegal abortion, and pleaded not guilty on the basis that the girl's mental health would have been adversely affected by giving birth. Dr Bourne was acquitted after the judge, Mr Justice Macnaughten, invited the jury to decide whether in acting to preserve the girl's mental health, as he saw it, the doctor's action had amounted to saving her life. The judge evidently condoned the abortion, and the jury acquitted the doctor.

The effect of the Bourne case was to give legal sanction for abortions to prevent damage to a woman's physical or mental health, a test which became interpreted more and more liberally, and which was incorporated into the Abortion Act. This marked a watershed and although medical grounds are still formally required, doctors can practice abortion virtually on request provided they claim mental health is at risk. Aleck Bourne eventually became appalled at the results of his case and became an early member of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children.

Steel's 1967 Abortion Act

The Abortion Act was introduced by the liberal MP David Steel with the tacit support of the Labour government under Harold Wilson. Steel introduced the bill as a Private Member's Bill after drawing third place in the ballot on 12th May 1966. The bill would not have reached the statute book but for the support of the government which provided the parliamentary time needed to get the bill through. The government was sympathetic to the measure but did not want to include it in its own legislative programme. The bill was eventually given a third reading by the House of Commons on 14th July 1967, and came into force on 27th April 1968.

The operation of the Act proved controversial from the outset, and a committee of inquiry was set up under Mrs Justice Lane in 1971 to review the working of the Act. Obstetricians and gynaecologists who refused to provide abortions, were put under pressure, and although those in senior posts were protected by the 'conscience clause' in the Act others were forced out of the specialism, or out of the country, as pro-abortion officials in the Department of Health demanded that NHS hospitals should provide wide access to abortion services.

Pro-life reform attempts

Pro-life MPs sought to amend the Act, first introducing amendment bills as early as 1969. But despite numerous attempts through the 1970s and 1980s, they all failed to achieve any reform of the Act, as government ministers of various parties and Department of Health officials studiously defended the legislation and its abuse.

In 1990 the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher introduced a bill (the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act) to legislate for in-vitro fertilisation, and agreed to allow amendments to the Abortion Act to be attached to the bill, thereby overcoming the major obstacle to getting abortion amendments onto the statute book. This proved a miscalculation on the part of pro-life MPs, as it later became clear that the government's agenda was not to introduce any significant restriction, but to widen the abortion law to accommodate new abortion techniques and to extend abortion for disabled babies up to birth (previously it had been restricted to the point at which the baby could be born alive).

Recent efforts

Further attempts to amend the law by pro-abortion MPs were attached to a later embryology bill in 2008. These also failed for reasons that are not apparent.

Recent efforts have focussed on unlawful abuses of the abortion law, such as the practice of sex-selection abortion, and the discriminatory nature of abortion for disabled babies.  The policy of the Department of Health to allow "unwanted" pregnancy to be deemed a threat to mental health is another way in which the law is being treated with contempt.

Dr. Bernard Nathanson

We fed the public a line of deceit, dishonesty, a fabrication of statistics and figures ... we sensationalized the effects of illegal abortions, and fabricated polls which indicated that 85% of the public favoured unrestricted abortion, when we knew it was only 5%. We unashamedly lied, and yet our statements were quoted (by the media) as though they had been written in law

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Lord David Steel?

I never envisaged there would be so many abortions