‘Remove abortion limit’ says midwife boss

It is currently illegal to end a pregnancy in the UK after 24 weeks. But midwives have gone into ‘revolt’ over their union’s support for a campaign to decriminalise it for good.

In the 13th century, the Catholic Church decided that ending a pregnancy was perfectly acceptable — up until the ‘quickening’, when mothers first felt their baby move. This, said priests, was the moment that the child’s soul had entered its body.

In Britain, abortions were not officially made illegal until the 1800s. Suddenly, mothers could be sentenced to life in prison — or even the death penalty — if they ended their pregnancy. Then in 1967 they were allowed abortions before 24 weeks.

The law has not changed much since. As long as they follow the rules, women in England, Wales and Scotland have access to safe medical abortions. There have been challenges by ‘pro-life’ groups, but nothing ever stuck. The issue was, at least in legal terms, settled.

All that changed this week, when Monday’s Daily Mail declared that midwives were in the midst of a ‘revolt’. There was ‘fury’ over their union’s ‘bid to axe ANY time limit on terminations.’ And Cathy Warwick, who is head of the Royal College of Midwives, has indeed supported a campaign called We Trust Women which argues that abortion should be decriminalised. It would mean that women no longer face prison for abortions after 24 weeks, or ‘self-induced’ abortions outside a hospital.

There was widespread outrage. It is ‘revolting’ to be asked to support terminating such late pregnancies, argued one midwife. Her job is about helping to bring about the ‘joy’ of new life, not ending it.

But Warwick has stuck by her position. Decriminalisation would not lead to a ‘free-for-all’, she said. Women who are eight months pregnant do not ask for abortions except in extreme cases — and doctors would not perform them. In Canada, which decriminalised abortion 25 years ago, only 2-3% of abortions happen after 16 weeks, and very few happen after 20.

Warwick concluded that as midwives, whose very title means with women, ‘we are there to support women, whatever their choices.’


Abortion sparks passionate opinion from all sides. And in a lot of ways, the debate has returned to that first decision back in the 1200s: when does a potential person become an actual person? Defenders of the legal time limit say it is there to prevent unborn people from being killed. How could we ask a doctor to abort a baby at 25 weeks when their colleagues were fighting to save another of the same age?

But the We Trust Women campaign argues that the question of when life begins should not be answered by lawyers and politicians, and insists that there is no evidence that removing the limit leads to later abortions. The real issue is that decriminalising abortion is about one thing: giving power back to the women whose bodies are at stake.

You Decide

  1. Should there be a legal time limit for abortions?
  2. When does a foetus become a ‘person’?


  1. Read the two opposing opinion pieces by midwives under Become An Expert. Then write a ‘pros and cons’ list for decriminalising abortion.
  2. Produce a leaflet which explains current abortion laws to women in the UK.

Some People Say...

“Life should be preserved no matter what.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So is the abortion limit being abolished?
No. The discussions have been sparked by a campaign, not a law that is being seriously considered by politicians; it will not happen any time soon. Even so, the campaign has reopened an old issue to general public — and it is always worth taking the time to go back and think about whether our opinions have changed.
If I want an abortion, what should I do?
If you can you should discuss it with your parents or a trusted adult. If you live in the UK (with the exception of Northern Ireland) you should then go to your GP or a sexual health clinic, where someone will advise you on what to do next. Remember that this is entirely your decision — you do not have to involve your parents if you don’t want to. There is more information under Become An Expert.

Word Watch

Catholic Church
The Church had a strong influence over British laws until King Henry VIII broke from Catholicism in 1533. It now considers all abortions to be morally wrong, regardless of the law.
The ‘quickening’
This generally happens between 16 and 20 weeks — although whether it has anything to do with a ‘soul’ is a religious argument. There is still no real consensus on when a foetus truly becomes ‘alive’.
The Abortion Act was passed in Britain after a period of lively campaigning by women’s rights activists, and to prevent women from having dangerous ‘backstreet’ abortions out of desperation.
A woman must have discussed her abortion with two doctors who then approve the procedure, and it must take place within a hospital or clinic. Exceptions are made to the 24-week rule if the mother’s life is in danger, or the foetus has a severe medical condition.
We Trust Women
The campaign is run by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service. Cathy Warwick is chair of the charity.
These statistics are from the University of Ottawa. Canada decriminalised abortion in 1988.

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