Abortion: the law

When can you have an abortion? The law changes depending on how long you've been pregnant. The Mix answers your most common questions.

gavel and law book

Your legal right for an abortion depends on certain circumstances.

Laws are often complex and not written in words most of us use. Deciding whether or not to have an abortion is hard enough without having to work out what all this legal jargon means. So, to help make things a bit clearer we’ve broken down the UK’s abortion laws for you so you know what your rights are.

So what is the law on abortion?

Abortion is legal in England, Scotland and Wales up until the 24th week of pregnancy. But if there’s a substantial risk to the woman’s life, or the foetus has abnormalities, there’s no time limit. The vast majority of abortions in the UK are carried out before 13 weeks.

Under the 1967 Abortion Act, two doctors must give their consent, saying that continuing with the pregnancy would risk the physical or mental health of the woman, or her existing children. Though it sounds like you will have to jump through a lot of hoops to get an abortion, it’s actually not difficult, especially if you visit a sexual health clinic like Brook.

In Northern Ireland, the situation is less clear-cut, and in Ireland abortion is illegal unless the mother’s life is at risk.

Do I have to have a reason to have a termination?

The law mentions woman can only have an abortion if keeping the baby will affect their ‘psychical and mental health’.

This clause really isn’t something to worry about. The doctor will probably ask you about why you want an abortion, but generally your decision to terminate the pregnancy will be respected. Carrying an unwanted child to term is reason enough to affect your mental health in the eyes of most doctors.

What if my doctor refuses to let me have an abortion?

Occasionally, a doctor who does not agree with abortion will refuse to refer you to a local abortion provider, but this would be very unusual. Even if this happens, the doctor is still legally obliged to refer you to another doctor in the practice. Alternatively, go to your local GUM clinic and ask for a referral.

Can I have an abortion if I’m under 16? Do I have to tell my parents?

You’re allowed an abortion under the age of 16 and if you are considered able to consent to medical treatment your parents don’t have to be told. Your doctor will encourage you to talk to a trusted adult about your decision. If you need a general anaesthetic, again, your parents don’t have to be informed, but you will need someone to take you home and make sure you’re OK afterwards.

How long can I leave it before having an abortion?

Abortion is legal in England, Scotland and Wales until 24 weeks, and there’s no limit if there are foetal abnormalities or risk to the mother’s life.

While we encourage you to take the time you need to think through your decision, with abortion the earlier you decide, the easier the procedure. Generally, up until nine weeks it’s possible to have a medical abortion (where you take pills to end the pregnancy). Some providers may offer medical abortion later than nine weeks.

After nine weeks, you would usually have a surgical abortion. The procedure for surgical abortion becomes more complex the nearer you are to 24 weeks, and in general you would take longer to recover physically.

The earlier you make your decision, the more options are open to you.

Boyfriends can’t prevent their partners from seeking or having an abortion. Partners who’ve tried to stop an abortion using legal action have all failed.

It’s understandable to feel hurt or cut out of the process – and to believe it’s unfair you don’t get a say when the foetus is technically half yours. If you’d like guidance on where to get advice and support speak to a member of our team.

Talk to someone

If you’re pregnant and unsure what to do, always seek professional help. Marie Stopes and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service both offer abortion counselling.

Never have an illegal abortion, or attempt anything yourself. Your GP (doctor), a clinic or hospital will give you all the information you will need to reach the decision that suits you best. Whatever you decide, you need to surround yourself with people who care about you.

If you feel like you’re trying to make a big decision about abortion alone, help is always out there. Not just before an abortion, but afterwards, too. For full information, contact an organisation such as Brook and talk to experienced professionals who can offer confidential advice about sexual and emotional problems.

Thanks to Marie Stopes and Education for Choice for their help with this article.

Next Steps

  • Brook provides free sexual health and wellbeing services for young people in the UK. Brook's services include local clinics and online digital sex and relationships tool.
  • You can talk to Childline about anything. Call them for free on 0800 1111 or visit their website.
  • You can visit NHS Choices for more information. You can get quick advice when it's not an emergency on 111.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.




Updated on 29-Sep-2015

Photo of gavel and book by Shutterstock.