How late can you have an abortion? UK abortion law explained
If you're thinking about having an abortion, know that you're not alone. The Mix, among others, is here to support you. When it comes to how late you can have an abortion, UK law generally permits this up to week 24 of gestation. Read on as we answer more of your most common questions about abortion and the law.
Understanding abortion laws in the UK
Laws are often complex and not written in plain English. They tend to use fancy words and a lot of jargon (probably just to seem smart). Regardless, deciding whether or not to have an abortion is hard enough without having to work out what all the legal terms mean. So, to help make things a bit clearer we’ve broken down the UK’s abortion laws.
To find out more about the timeline of the law and some stats, click here. Abortion is an essential healthcare right and access to abortions is a huge step in the women’s rights movement, because it allows women to make decisions about their bodies and their own lives. Sadly this right is under threat in the US, so this is all the more reason why it should be respected and protected here as much as possible.
The abortion limit in the UK
The abortion limit in the UK is 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. The term Early Medical Abortions (EMA) applies when the procedure is carried out at 10 weeks or earlier.
Under the Abortion Act 1967, 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. Judging by the conversations surrounding the topic (most of which you most likely will have heard from the American pov), it might sound like you have to jump through a lot of hoops to get adequate help. But across the pond in ye ol’ UK, it’s actually not difficult. Especially if you visit a sexual health clinic like Brook.
In Northern Ireland, abortion used to be illegal, so those who wanted to have the procedure had to cross the Irish Sea to England and Wales to do so without facing criminal charges. Thankfully, this changed in 2019. Read our article about abortion being legalised in Northern Ireland here.
Are abortions free in UK?
Yes, the vast majority of abortion procedures in the UK are funded by the NHS. According to the NHS website, there are three ways to start the process:
- You can self-refer by contacting an abortion provider directly – the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), MSI Reproductive Choices UK, the National Unplanned Pregnancy Advisory Service (NUPAS) or your local NHS sexual health website can tell you about eligibility and abortion services in your area.
- Speak to a GP and discuss your options for a referral to an abortion service – the GP should refer you to another doctor if he or she has any objections to abortion.
- Contact a sexual health clinic, sometimes called family planning or GUM (genitourinary medicine) clinics, and ask for a referral to an abortion service.
Do I have to have a reason for an abortion?
Technically speaking, the law mentions people can only terminate a pregnancy if keeping the baby will affect their ‘psychical and mental health’.
But this clause really isn’t something to worry about. The doctor will probably ask you about why you want an abortion. However, generally your decision to terminate the pregnancy will be respected. Not to mention, 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 to thoroughly discuss your options. Alternatively, go to your local GUM clinic and ask for a referral. Just make sure whoever you’re talking to gives you suggestions for support to help you come to terms with everything. It can sometimes be tough and you may want to talk to someone about how it’s affected you.
Can I have an abortion if I’m under 16? Do I have to tell my parents?
Yes. You’re allowed an abortion under the age of 16, as long as you’re considered able to consent to medical treatment, your parents don’t have to be told about it. However, 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.
After how many weeks can you have an abortion in the UK?
You can normally have an abortion up to 24 weeks in the UK. However, 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 the ninth week of pregnancy it’s possible to have an Early Medical Abortion (where you take pills to end the pregnancy). Some providers may offer a 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.
So, the earlier you make your decision, the more options are open to you.
To find out more about it, click here.
I don’t want my partner to have an abortion. Do I have any legal rights to stop them?
It’s understandable to feel hurt or cut out of the process – and to believe it’s unfair you don’t get a say – but you can’t prevent your partner from seeking or having an abortion. Partners who’ve tried to stop an abortion using legal action have all failed.
As difficult as it is, try to keep them in mind. While having a baby might alter your life, and we’re not diminishing that, it will fundamentally change your partner’s. Pregnancy and birth is an experience that stays with you for life, not to mention the responsibility of caring that follows; this could completely disrupt your partner’s life plans and she or they may not feel emotionally or financially ready to raise a child.
If you’d like guidance on where to get advice and support, speak to a member of our team.
Talk to someone about it
If you’re pregnant and unsure what to do when it comes to abortion treatment and abortion care, always seek professional help. MSI Reproductive Choices UK, who helped us write this article (along with Ecucation For Choice) 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.
- 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 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.
By Nishika Melwani
Updated on 10-Oct-2021
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