Doctors have backed decriminalising abortion, as momentum gathers to overhaul the 1967 Abortion Act.
Currently women in England and Wales have to prove to a doctor that carrying on with the pregnancy is detrimental to health or wellbeing to get permission for a termination.
Without permission, abortion is a criminal offence.
But medics at the British Medical Association’s annual conference voted to scrap that rule.
‘Complex and sensitive’
The organisation wants abortion to be treated like any other medical procedure and therefore to be regulated and subject to certain standards and will now look to lobby government to change the law.
Dr John Chisholm, who chairs the BMA medical ethics committee, said: “This is clearly a sensitive and complex issue, on which doctors voiced a broad range of views during an informed and considered debate.
“Abortion is currently a crime, with exceptions, throughout the UK.
“Following the debate, the majority of doctors were clear that abortion should be treated as a medical issue rather than a criminal one.
“What must be clear is that decriminalisation does not mean deregulation.
“The debate and the BMA’s new policy only relate 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 vote at the doctors’ annual conference in Bournemouth does not change the BMA’s policy on the 24-week limit for an abortion. The union still backs that.
Speaking after the debate, Dr Clare Gerada, former chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, who is also a trustee of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), said: “Abortion is never an easy thing to do for any woman or for any man.
“But for abortion to be governed by criminal law rather than governed by healthcare regulation is nonsense.
“The BMA doesn’t make law, but the BMA is a very powerful voice for doctors and it’s a very powerful voice for people of this country.”
But Dr Anthony McCarthy, of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said the BMA the move would “trivialise” abortion.
“The BMA has betrayed all who take seriously healthcare for pregnant woman in favour of an extremist agenda in line with the abortion industry’s laissez faire ‘up to birth’ attitude to ending the lives of unborn children,” he said.
Meanwhile Dr Peter Saunders, chief executive of the Christian Medical Fellowship, commented: “This decision defies common sense and will dismay thousands of ordinary doctors and nurses with their unprecedented decision.”
The 1967 Abortion Act permits abortions to be performed under certain conditions in England, Wales and Scotland
Most abortions are carried out before 24 weeks of pregnancy – for example, when two doctors agree that continuing the pregnancy would involve greater risk to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family than if there was a termination
Abortions are usually available free-of-charge on the NHS and can be carried out in only an NHS hospital or a licensed clinic
They can be carried out after 24 weeks in certain circumstances – for example, if the mother’s life is at risk
Abortion is a criminal offence in Northern Ireland. The exceptions include to save a woman’s life, or if there is a risk to her health
Taking drugs to bring on a miscarriage without doctors’ consent is an offence in the UK