Abortion 101: The law, the stats, and the facts

If you read my previous post on abortion, you might wish to delve a little deeper into this issue. If you haven’t read it, you can do so here.

This time, I decided to simply let the facts speak for themselves. I hope you’ll find the following two bumper posts a helpful resource on the subject. In this section I cover the law, stats and abortion procedures, as well as further reading. Part 2, which will be posted in a few days, will cover the abortion industry, where to get help, and more resources.

UK abortion law

So let’s start with the legal stuff.

It may surprise you to learn that under UK law (excluding Northern Ireland), abortion is actually illegal except for in limited circumstances.

This legislation was introduced just over 50 years ago, known as the 1967 Abortion Act.

Under the Act, a woman can legally obtain an abortion under the following grounds, if two doctors agree that:

A – the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk to the life of the pregnant woman

greater than if the pregnancy were terminated

B – the termination is necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or

mental health of the pregnant woman

C – the pregnancy has NOT exceeded its 24th week and that the continuance of the

pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to

the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman

D – the pregnancy has NOT exceeded its 24th week and that the continuance of the

pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, or injury to

the physical or mental health of any existing child(ren) of the family of the pregnant


E – there is substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or

mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped

What does this mean?

Over 98% of abortions in England and Wales take place under grounds C or D. (In 2016, 97% and 1% respectively).

This means the vast majority of all UK abortions are signed off, by two doctors, on the basis that continuing with the pregnancy would have negative consequences on the woman’s health (usually, mental health).

But this prediction is not strenuously tested and the evidence for allowing abortions on such grounds is inconclusive. An independent review commissioned by the Department of Health in 2011 found that: “The rates of mental health problems for women with an unwanted pregnancy were the same whether they had an abortion or gave birth.” 

If you want an evidence-based, comprehensive review on abortion and effects on women’s physical and mental health, you can download one free from the SPUC website.

Abortion is not legally available on demand, but doctors will often use Grounds C and D as a loophole, with ‘unwanted pregnancy’ considered a sufficient risk to a woman’s mental health. 

What about the hard cases?

According to a midwife friend of mine, there are some potentially life threatening situations when abortion would be offered or even advised by medical staff.

Examples include ectopic pregnancies, serious pre-existing medical conditions, such as if the woman has a cardiac condition which is worsening in pregnancy, pregnancy-related conditions such as severe pre eclampsia which can cause complications including death of the mother, or rupture of the membranes surrounding the baby prior to 24 weeks, which increases the risk of infection to mother and baby. In some cases this can cause severe sepsis which can cause death.

On the other hand, there are cases where abortion proponents argue that abortion is necessary, but this is not always so clear-cut. A former abortionist explains here.

Sometimes a woman may choose to undergo treatment to save her life which may indirectly result in the death of her unborn child, such as taking chemo drugs to treat cancer. This is not the same as having an abortion.

But what about the other oft-cited cases for abortion – rape, incest, disability?

For grounds A, B and E, a woman is permitted to have an abortion up to birth.

The number of abortions that take place specifically on the basis of rape or incest is not reported, presumably because those reasons come under one of the other stated grounds. But it is important to bear in mind that abortions for rape or incest make up a very small percentage of the UK’s overall abortion rate.

Abortions for disability, however, are easier to keep track of.

  • In 2016, there were 3,208 abortions on the grounds of disability – an increase of 39% over the previous five years.
  • 706 babies were aborted because they had Down’s syndrome. In fact, around 9 in 10 women who are told their baby will have Down’s will have an abortion. Many people with Down’s can work, marry and live independently.

As I mentioned already, abortion for disability is permitted up to birth, even, as in the case of abortions for Down’s, the disability is not serious.

Ready for some more stats?

I’ve gone over the law and how the law is applied, but here are some other recent stats.

  • Around 1 in 5 pregnancies in the UK end in abortion.
  • 185,596 abortions took place in 2016 to residents of England and Wales.
  • 38% of abortions in 2016 were to women who had had one or more previous abortions.
  • Medical abortions accounted for 62% of the total. Of the remaining percentage, 33% were vacuum aspiration abortions; 5% were dilation and evacuation abortions. Don’t know what this means? Read on.

How are abortions performed?

There are various methods of performing an abortion.

WARNING: Graphic descriptions ahead. I’d advise reading when you are feeling mentally strong and not while you’re eating. 

If you prefer visual content over reading, watch this animated video instead of reading below.

  • The first method is the taking of two pills – one containing Mifepristone, and the other, Misoprostol. The first pill blocks the hormone progesterone, breaking down the lining of the mother’s womb, which cuts off blood and nourishment to the baby. The second pill, taken 24 – 48hrs later, causes contractions and bleeding to expel the baby from the womb. This is known as a medical abortion and takes place in the first trimester of pregnancy – up to 10 weeks. 
  • The second is a surgical method called vacuum aspiration. The abortionist uses metal rods or medication to dilate the woman’s cervix and gain access to the uterus. A suction catheter is then inserted to vacuum the baby from the womb, dismembering the baby in the process. Finally, the abortionist uses a sharp metal device called a curette to empty any remaining parts of the child from the mother’s uterus. Vacuum aspiration abortions take place between 5-13 weeks’ gestation. 
  • The third is also a surgical method called Dilation and Evacuation (D&E). The abortionist first uses sterilised seaweed, called laminaria, to dilate the woman’s cervix. Later, the abortionist uses something called a sopher clamp – a grasping instrument with rows of sharp ‘teeth’, to extract the baby from the uterus. In order to do so, the baby must be dismembered, including the skull being crushed. A curette is then used to scrape the uterus for any remaining parts and to remove the placenta. D&E abortions are performed between 13-24 weeks.
  • Finally, in rare cases of abortions that take place after 24 weeks, abortionists must use a method called induction. This involves killing the baby in utero by injecting digoxin or potassium chloride, which causes the baby’s heart to stop. The woman is later induced into labour to deliver the baby.

For more info on any of these procedures, including risks and complications, visit this website.

If you have a really strong stomach, this is a filmed real life abortion procedure. PLEASE BE WARNED, it is extremely graphic and disturbing, and there are also several graphic images below the video. I don’t recommend diving into this without some mental preparation.

Further reading

If you want more information on the statistics mentioned above, the following links should be useful.

  • Department of Health abortion statistics for 2016 can be viewed here
  • A quick breakdown of these stats by LIFE charity can be viewed here
  • As mentioned earlier – if you are interested in the effects of abortion on women’s health, a fully referenced review can be downloaded from the SPUC website. The review, Abortion and Women’s Health, was conducted by medical researcher and Founding Director of the Adelaide Centre for Bioethics and Culture, Dr Gregory Pike.
  • For general resources, including real life storiesAbort67 is thorough.


If you found this post helpful, I hope you will return for part 2, up later this week.


5 thoughts on “Abortion 101: The law, the stats, and the facts

Add yours

  1. Thank you for researching this Camilla. When issues don’t affect us personally it is easy for us to prefer ‘not to know’. What a shocking waste of human life.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: