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Ethics briefing
  1. Sophie Brannan,
  2. Ruth Campbell,
  3. Veronica English,
  4. Rebecca Mussell,
  5. Julian C Sheather,
  6. Martin Davies
  1. Department of Medical Ethics and Human Rights, British Medical Association, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Martin Davies, Department of Medical Ethics and Human Rights, British Medical Association, London, WC1H 9JP, UK; mdavies{at}bma.org.uk

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Decriminalisation of abortion

Doctors and medical students in the UK have voted in support of the decriminalisation of abortion for women who self-administer abortions and healthcare professionals who provide abortions within the context of their clinical practice. Abortion should be treated as a medical issue rather than a criminal one.

Background to the vote

The vote took place at the end of June during the British Medical Association’s (BMA) Annual Representative Meeting (ARM), where representatives of doctors and medical students from across the British Isles gathered to set BMA policy through democratic procedures.

Representatives considered the issue of decriminalisation during a 2-hour debate, where diverse and opposing viewpoints were heard. The debate was informed by a neutral discussion paper that was published by the BMA in February, which provided a guide to some of the key legal and ethical issues raised by the debate around decriminalisation.1

The BMA’s new policy only relates to whether abortion should or should not be a criminal offence; the policy does not address the broader issue of when and how abortion should be available. The BMA has established policy on these issues which remains unchanged.2

The law on abortion

Induced abortion is currently a crime throughout the British Isles. There are, however, a range of exceptions to the crime laid out in statute and/or common law (judge-made law), for example, in England, Scotland and Wales, under the Abortion Act 1967.

Any healthcare professionals operating within those defined exceptions, which include grounds for authorising an abortion and procedural requirements, can lawfully carry out an abortion as a clinical procedure. Outside these defined exceptions, the criminal offences potentially apply both to those who participate in carrying out abortions for others, including doctors, nurses and midwives, and to women who carry out abortions on themselves.

For example, healthcare professionals who do not follow procedural requirements can attract criminal sanctions …

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