In Britain before 1967, the law gave substantial protection to unborn children. In the case of R. v. Bourne (1938) in which the defendant, the gynaecologist Aleck Bourne, had performed an abortion on a girl who had been raped, the jury upheld the judge's view that an abortion could lawfully be done to prevent the mother from becoming "a physical or mental wreck." On this view of the law, abortion was allowed on serious medical grounds, but abortion on demand was certainly unlawful.
In 1966, the founder members of SPUC recognised that the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Bill (which became the Abortion Act 1967) then before Parliament would drastically change the law, leading to abortion on demand. The society was formed to oppose the Bill. Aleck Bourne, the gynaecologist who had instigated the landmark court case of 1938, had become increasingly appalled that his case was being used to justify the new legislation, and became a founder member of SPUC.
Opposition to the proposed liberalisation of the abortion law was at that time supported by the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, bodies which only became dominated by a more permissive approach to abortion several years after the new law was implemented. As a pressure group formed specifically to lobby for the rights of the unborn child, SPUC was the first organisation to be established anywhere in the world in what is known as the pro-life movement.
SPUC was founded to uphold the principle of respect for human life, in particular the life of the unborn child. The society's constitution was, and remains, non-religious, endorsing the recognition by the world community in the 1959 United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child that the child "needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth." The society has a set of aims.
Formed as a pressure group, SPUC has continued to operate as such, the main focus of its work being the parliamentary campaigns against abortion and embryo experimentation, as well as opposing the legalisation of euthanasia. In the passage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, parliament legalised destructive experimentation on human embryos in the laboratory up to 14 days after conception, and abortion up to birth in certain cases including disability in the unborn child. However, the voting patterns of MPs and the rejection of more easily available abortion clearly showed the great increase in strength of the pro-life lobby in parliament since 1967. The legislative setbacks of 1990 also gave a new impetus to SPUC's campaign, which enjoyed several political and legislative successes in the subsequent Parliament. The society has many other achievements.
The society's areas of activity have also expanded, with the development of extensive contacts in many spheres, nationally and internationally. SPUC has developed grass-roots support in Britain through its branches and the activity of members promoting the pro-life cause in political parties, trade unions, educational institutions and religious groupings (principally the Christian churches and the Muslim community).
SPUC is a privately funded voluntary organisation. It is not a registered charity, remaining free to pursue its legislative objectives unimpeded by the constraints of charity law.
The society depends for its income (which is in the region of 1 million pounds annually) on donations and fundraising by members and supporters. Many of the organisations opposed to the rights of unborn children are in receipt of funds from government departments and grants from private foundations, such as the International Planned Parenthood Federation, which is funded by governments and non-governmental foundations worldwide and which receives millions of pounds every year.
SPUC enjoys a high degree of independence. As the society is not a body of any church or political party, and has limited affiliations, it is free to operate effectively across a wide denominational, political and social spectrum.