In 1861, the Offences Against the Person Act made it illegal to supply or use any “poison or other noxious thing” or to use “any instrument or other means” to cause a woman to miscarry. It outlawed abortion by either the woman or any other person such as a doctor, nurse, midwife or pharmacist.
In 1938, Dr. Alec Bourne performed an abortion on a 14-year-old girl who claimed to have been raped by soldiers. He gave himself up to the police, was charged with performing an illegal abortion, put on trial and acquitted on the grounds that the girl would have become ‘a mental wreck’ if she had not had the abortion. As a result of the Bourne case, more and more abortions began to be practised in Britain in cases where the woman’s physical or mental health was thought to be in danger, a loophole in the law that was interpreted increasingly loosely. Dr Bourne became so concerned about the results of his action that he became a founder member of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children.
In 1966, David Steel MP introduced the bill into parliament that became the 1967 Abortion Act. Supporters of the Abortion Act claimed then that it was ‘not the intention of the promoters of the bill to leave a wide open door for abortion on request’ although this is precisely what has happened. The Abortion Act allowed abortion with the signature of two doctors, on the grounds that:
- a) continuing the pregnancy would involve a greater risk to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or her family than if the baby was born
- b) there was a risk that the child would be disabled
Though no specific time limit was introduced by the Act, it referred to the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 which said that no unborn child could be killed who was ‘capable of being born alive’. This was taken to be 28 weeks gestation.
In 1990, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act liberalised the abortion law even further, allowing disabled babies to be aborted up until birth. Since then, doctors have cited disabilities such as spina bifida and cleft palate as ‘serious abnormalities’ deserving late-term abortion.