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Ethics briefings
  1. Veronica English,
  2. Danielle Hamm,
  3. Caroline Harrison,
  4. Rebecca Mussell,
  5. Julian Sheather,
  6. Ann Sommerville
  1. BMA Ethics Department:

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    October 2007 is the 40th anniversary of the Abortion Act. The original Act was based on a desire to end backstreet abortions and protect women against the potential harm of undergoing them. Today, access to abortion in Britain is perceived by many as a woman’s reproductive right over her body, although the notion of “rights” is not reflected in the current legal framework. Public attitudes towards abortion are changing, and the anniversary has prompted calls for revision of the law.

    Under the current legislation, in order to obtain an abortion, a woman must have a medical justification; two doctors must confirm that she meets the medical criteria, and the abortion must be administered in NHS approved premises. Suggested amendments to the original Abortion Act focus on removing the restrictions women face in accessing abortions in the first trimester of pregnancy and on reducing the current 24-week time limit.

    Although some public opinion polls indicate support for removing restrictions to accessing first-trimester abortions,1 there is some evidence of reluctance in the medical profession to further liberalisation of access. For example, in May 2007, the general practitioners’ magazine Pulse published the results of a survey of 309 general practitioners showing that one in five did not believe abortion should be legal and one in four would not sign referral forms for women seeking an abortion.2

    Discussion concerning abortion featured heavily at the British Medical Association’s (BMA’s) Annual Representative Meeting in June 2007, including the discussion of a motion calling for the removal of the requirement for women to have a medical justification for abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy.

    Abortion is a sensitive issue in virtually all cultures, and the disparity in views about it is not exclusive to Britain. In 2007, Mexico City legalised abortion in the first …

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