We should state upfront that as practising Catholics we do not approve of or condone abortion unless there is good medical reasons so the following provides the plain medical facts about abortion. The word abortion means to end a pregnancy so that it does not result in a live birth. This could be by miscarriage (also known as spontaneous abortion) or by an induced abortion, usually called termination of pregnancy. A miscarriage happens naturally, an induced abortion is deliberate.
In the UK there are different laws regarding the right to a legal abortion. The 1967 Abortion Act sets out the legal grounds for abortion in relation to England, Scotland and Wales only. This act states that an abortion is legal if the pregnancy is less than 24 weeks and two doctors agree that the abortion can be carried out. The two doctors need to agree that one or more of the following apply:
The way doctors interpret the law will depend on their own personal feelings about abortion. Some doctors may take the woman’s social and economic circumstances into consideration.
A legal abortion can be obtained after 24 weeks but these are relatively infrequent. An abortion can only go ahead after 24 weeks when two doctors have agreed there is a serious threat to the pregnant person’s life or in cases of serious foetal disability.
In Northern Ireland the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 criminalises abortion, although a legal abortion can be obtained in the most exceptional circumstances under the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013.
Any woman or girl married or single can have an abortion if the reason is one of those outlined in the law and the required number of doctors certify the procedure. If you have made your mind up that you definitely want an abortion, say so firmly and explain your reasons.
As soon as a woman has missed a period a pregnancy test should be done to confirm whether she is pregnant or not. As soon as pregnancy is confirmed, an abortion can be carried out, as long as she is sure she does not want the pregnancy to continue. Very early abortions can take place soon after the woman has missed her first period.
Most hospitals and clinics will not consider termination beyond 18-20 weeks. If you are considering having an abortion you should seek your doctor’s advice as soon as possible. To pinpoint the exact stage of the pregnancy an ultrasound scan is used. There are time limits to abortions so the sooner you seek help the better.
Abortions must be carried out by a qualified doctor in an N.H.S. hospital or in a clinic/nursing home that has been approved for abortions by the Department of Health.
The law in England, Wales and Scotland says that no doctor or nurse must help with an abortion if he/she has a moral objection to the procedure. If your doctor will not consider your request for an abortion on personal, moral or religious grounds, you can ask to be referred to another doctor who is willing to give advice and help.
The ease of having an abortion will depend on the reasons and how far into the pregnancy you are. Abortions up to about 12 weeks are a relatively simple operation. After this period it becomes more complicated and may be risky for the woman. Because of the risks that may be involved, doctors are less likely to carry on with the request for an abortion after 12 weeks. If a woman lives in an area where it is not easy to get an N.H.S. abortion it may be easier for her to pay the fees herself at a suitable private clinic.
In Northern Ireland it is very difficult to get a legal abortion. In 2016 the Irish Department of Health said there were 25 legal abortions carried out in Ireland. While in the same year, 3,265 women travelled from Ireland to the UK for a termination.
Most abortions undertaken in England, Wales and Scotland are provided free by the N.H.S. following a referral from two doctors. There are usually waiting times but you shouldn’t have to wait more than 2 weeks from your initial appointment. In some areas it may be difficult to get a free abortion, with very few consultants willing to accept abortion cases.
Some women choose to use a clinic run by an abortion charity or a private clinic to avoid this waiting period. Most can still offer an NHS funded procedure if you are eligible. If you are paying privately, fees can vary from £300 to £2000 depending on the clinic, stage of pregnancy and the method used.
All doctors’ visits are confidential even in cases where the woman is under 16 years of age. All staff working at hospitals, clinics and surgeries are under strict confidentiality rules and information about an abortion does not go on your medical records.
If the girl wanting the abortion shows she can understand what is involved in the process, she may give her own consent. The doctor will encourage the girl to involve her parents because support will be needed emotionally and sometimes physically.
Some doctors are not prepared undertake an abortion for a girl under the age of 16 without her parent’s consent. If the girl is certain she will not tell her parents then the doctors will have to decide if the girl is mature enough to understand what she is doing. If the doctors do not believe the girl is mature enough, they will require a suitable guardian’s consent.
Anyone over the age of 16 has the right to consent their own medical treatment including abortion.
The law at present states the father’s consent is not needed.
Whether you are certain you want to proceed with an abortion or are having difficulty making a decision, you should be offered impartial advice and support from a trained pregnancy counsellor. This can be obtained from your GP practice, a counselling service at an abortion clinic or various organisations and charities such as the FPS, Brook, BPAS, Marie Stopes UK and NUPAS.
You may want to discuss the option of abortion with your partner, family or a friend, however they will not have a say in the final decision.
There are 2 commonly used methods to terminate a pregnancy.
An abortion pill can be used if an abortion is carried out in the first 9 weeks of pregnancy. This is called a ‘medical abortion’ as it does not involve any surgery. During a medical abortion the woman is given a course of 2 different types of tablets. After taking the first tablets, the woman will then have to return to the hospital or clinic 48 hours later, to have the other tablet placed in her vagina (like a vaginal thrush pessary). These drugs will usually result in the woman having a miscarriage within the following 6 hours. The woman will experience symptoms rather like a heavy and painful period.
Most abortions before 13 weeks are by ‘vacuum aspiration’ (the suction method). A local or general anaesthetic is required. During a vacuum aspiration abortion a thin, round tube is eased into the uterus (womb), through the cervix – the passage that links the vagina to the womb. Suction is applied to remove the contents of the uterus and the pregnancy is terminated. This method will not involve any stitches and so there is no wound. Most healthy women can go home the same day.
You will probably need to take things easy for a few days after your procedure and you are likely experience some discomfort and vaginal bleeding for up to two weeks.
The type of abortion you are offered will depend upon the length of the pregnancy and the facilities that are available at your chosen hospital or clinic. There are a few other methods for later abortions, which your doctor will discuss with you.
A visit to the doctors about 2 – 3 weeks after the abortion will be necessary to check all is well and also to ensure the abortion is complete.
Most women will not experience any problems. Abortions are safer the earlier they are carried out, however, there is a small risk of complications such as:-
Having an abortion should not affect a woman’s fertility.
You may experience some emotional problems, if you ever need to talk, your doctor or a professional counsellor will help as much as they can.
For further help and advice on an unplanned pregnancy or if you are concerned after you have had an abortion call CAREconfidential on 0800 028 2228, this is a UK free-phone service.
For further help and advice on an unplanned pregnancy or if you are concerned after you have had an abortion call British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) on 03457 30 40 30, the call will be charged at a local rate.