Facts about abortion


This is a tidied up version of the notes from a talk I gave at an event all about abortion.  It was a really good event with a wide range of views in the room.  It was emotional and at times upsetting, but no-one got cross and everyone seemed to appreciate that we were able to disagree agreeably and reassess what we each thought about this important issue.  I hope you find this helps you in your own thinking too.

Before we get into it, there’s three things I would ask of us as we think about and discuss the issue of abortion:

Firstly, let’s tread lightly when we express our views on this subject.  For many of us, it will be a painful topic.  So let’s be gentle in the way we express opinions that others may find difficult to hear.

Secondly, let’s not preclude anyone from being heard or understood in this discussion purely because of their gender.  That would be sexist.  Let’s acknowledge that people of any gender may well be affected by abortion and have equal rights as human beings to be heard.

Thirdly, let’s appreciate that this issue isn’t one that should necessarily divide Christians from Humanists.  I used to assume that most Humanists would be pro-choice, but I’m realising that many aren’t.  There may well be common ground between many of us on this issue, regardless of our religious views.  I won’t be appealing to God or the Bible in this discussion, so try not to think of me as “Dave the Christian” but simply as “Dave the human being” for this one.  We can talk about God another time!

So, with that said, I want to explore some of the facts about abortion under two headings:

1. DEFINITIONS – What exactly are we talking about?

2. HISTORY – What can we learn from the UK’s journey with abortion so far?

DEFINTIONS – What exactly are we talking about?

3 questions I want to ask here:
What is an abortion?
How does it work?
What words should we use to describe it most accurately?

The NHS website has lots of helpful information about abortion.  It says,

“An abortion is the medical process of ending a pregnancy so it doesn’t result in the birth of a baby”


“The pregnancy is ended either by taking medications or having a minor surgical procedure.”

The NHS website also describes the different methods that are used:


First, there’s the ‘medical abortion’ method.  This is 2 medications, 24-48 hours apart, “to induce a miscarriage”, it tells us.  And…

“…the lining of the womb breaks down, causing bleeding and loss of the pregnancy…”

This method can be used at any stage but most is effective in first 9 weeks.


Then there’s the ‘surgical abortion’ method and there are 2 kinds:

1. Vacuum/Suction

The NHS website says this method is “used up to 15 weeks…  inserting a tube… and the pregnancy is removed using suction.”

“Takes 5-10 minutes.”

Then there’s the second kind of ‘surgical abortion’ method,

2. Dilation and Evacuation

Again quoting the NHS website, it says this method is “used from around 15 weeks… inserting… forceps through the cervix and into the womb to remove the pregnancy.”

Now that we have a pretty good idea what’s being described by the word ‘abortion’, we should stop to think about terminology.  What words should we use to describe abortion most accurately?

What exactly is being ‘ended’ and ‘removed’ in an abortion?

The phrase the NHS website opts for is “the pregnancy”, but for obvious reasons, I think they’re trying to use the most sensitive language possible. Completely understandable.

Some would want to say “the baby”, but the objection would be that this is too emotive.  So I won’t be using that phrase.

Others would say it’s a “human person” but this is clearly up for debate.  And “personhood” is an entirely sociological term anyway, so its definition is up for grabs, being defined by different people in different ways at different times.

How about “human life”?  Is it accurate to say it’s a human life that’s being ended and removed in an abortion?

Dr. C. Ward Kischer, Professor Emeritus of Human Embryology, University of Arizona School of Medicine says,

“Every human embryologist, worldwide, states that the life of the new individual human being begins at fertilization (conception).”  [Taken from this article.]

And JT Eberl, in his book ‘The Beginning of Personhood’ (page 35) says,

“As far as human ‘life’ per se, it is, for the most part, uncontroversial among the scientific and philosophical community that life begins at the moment when the genetic information contained in the sperm and ovum combine to form a genetically unique cell.”  [Taken from this article]

What does this mean?

It means it is a well-established scientific fact that “human life” begins at conception.

So let’s take another look at the definition of abortion from the NHS website:

“An abortion is the medical process of ending a pregnancy so it doesn’t result in the birth of a baby.”

“The pregnancy is ended either by taking medications or having a minor surgical procedure.”

This is definitely a sensitive way of describing abortion, but I don’t think it’s the most accurate description. 

I think a more accurate definition would be as follows:

An abortion is the medical process of prematurely ending a human life during a pregnancy.
The human life is ended either by taking medications or having a minor surgical procedure.

The phrase “human life” more accurately describes what it is that’s being ended and removed every time an abortion takes place.  The phrase “human life” is not a debatable sociological term like “personhood”, nor is it a phrase based on religious beliefs.  “Human life” is an accurate biological description for what is being ended and removed in an abortion.

So we have this fact: Abortion ends human lives.

So that’s DEFINITIONS.  Now let’s turn to…

HISTORY – What can we learn from the UK’s journey with abortion so far?

3 questions I want to ask here:
When, how and why have abortion laws changed in our country?
Did the changes to the law have the desired effects?
What is the situation today?

It’s worth knowing how a human life develops in its mother’s womb during pregnancy and how this process intersects with the laws we have in the UK today.

Conception: A human life begins.  Height, sex, eye-colour determined
Week 5: There is a heartbeat
Week 6: Brain is formed
Week 8: It can move on its own
Week 9: Hands, feet, toes
Week 12: Complete skeleton
Most abortions take place between 8 and 12 weeks
Week 20: Can hear and recognise voices
Week 24: Can survive on its own if born
24 weeks: Legal limit for abortions
40 weeks: Legal limit if severely disabled

Let’s take a look at how laws have changed in the UK over the years.  This comes from an article by the BBC.

Pre 1803 English Common Law agreed that abortion was a crime after ”quickening” (when it was believed the soul entered the fetus).

1803 English Statute Law made abortion after quickening a crime punishable by death but less serious before that point.

1837 English Law abandoned “quickening” notion and the death penalty for abortion.

1920s Abortion still illegal but a clause was added to make an exception where abortion was “…done in good faith for the purpose only of preserving the life of the mother.”

The BBC article says: “This change officially recognised a little-stressed feature of anti-abortion laws; they were often intended to protect women from a dangerous medical procedure, and not to protect the life of the foetus.”

1938 The R v Bourne case established that the mother’s mental suffering could also be sufficient reason for an abortion to “preserve the life of the mother”, “if” (as the judge said at that time), ”…the probable consequence of the pregnancy will be to make the woman a physical or mental wreck.”

…or if the baby to be born would be quote “seriously handicapped.”

Although it is often said that the 1967 Abortion Act gave women in Britain the right to have an abortion, it actually didn't do that - abortion remained a crime under the earlier law, and the 1967 Act provided a defence for those who had carried out an abortion under certain conditions.

That was the intention.

But can you see the loophole in this change to the law???

The problem is: ANY abortion can be justified on these grounds.

When does having a baby NOT pose significant risk of harm to a woman’s mental health???

And when is that risk less than a procedure which today can take less than 10 minutes?

Isn’t having kids is ALWAYS riskier on the mum’s mental health than having an abortion?

I adore my kids, but they drive us nuts as well!!

The 1967 Abortion Act had failed to do what it set out to do.  Rather than limit abortion to exceptional circumstances, it actually allowed it to become more common…

According to The Johnston Archive, in 1991 the total number of abortions carried out legally in the UK was 117,567.  That’s 322 every day.

And in 1991, clarifications were made so that abortions could be justified for 7 different reasons.  Today, 2 doctors have to name at least one of these 7 as the reason or reasons to justify the abortion in every case. 

The unintended (or perhaps intended) wide open loophole is still there!  Can you spot it? 

Here are the 7 reasons: 

A. The continuance of the pregnancy would involve greater risk to the life of the pregnant woman than if it were terminated.

B. To prevent “grave permanent injury” to the mother’s physical or mental health.

C. The pregnancy has not exceeded its 24th week and the risk to the mother’s physical or mental health by continuing the pregnancy is greater than terminating it.

D. The pregnancy has not exceeded its 24th week and the risk to the mother’s existing children’s physical or mental health by continuing the pregnancy is greater than terminating it.

E. There is a substantial risk that if the child were born, it would be “seriously handicapped”.

F. To save the life of the mother.

G. The termination is NECESSARY to prevent “grave permanent injury” to the mother’s physical or mental health.

Which one of these 7 reasons do you think is used most often when abortions are carried out today in the UK?

It shouldn’t surprise us that it’s C. 

Why?  Because the risk on the mother’s mental health of continuing the pregnancy is ALWAYS greater than the risk of having a simple medical procedure to terminate it. 

Bringing a new human life into the world is ALWAYS riskier than not doing that. 

And so the consequence of the 1967 Abortion Act continues to this day. 

Reason C allows women in the UK to have an abortion for ANY and EVERY reason.

Reason C accounts for the vast majority of abortions carried out in the UK and it’s rising still.

Back in 1991, reason C accounted for 82% of the abortions carried out in the UK that year.

By 2011 it was 98%!!!

Today, nearly ALL abortions are carried out for this reason because ANY abortion can be justified under this reason.  It’s a loophole.  The only question is whether or not it was an intentional loophole or a genuine legal blind spot.  We can’t know either way.

What we do know is that abortion for convenience is common in the UK.  We can’t say it accounts for the 98% of abortions that happen for reason C, but we can surely say it happens on a daily basis.

The NHS website tells us that 1 in 3 women in the UK will have an abortion during their lifetime.

And we know that today, 190,000 abortions happen every year in the UK.  That’s 520 every day.  And this is a 60% increase since 2001.


So to sum up what we’ve learned from exploring accurate definitions and the UK’s legal history when it comes to abortion, we need to acknowledge the following 3 facts:
  1. Abortion ends human lives.
  2. 520 abortions happen in the UK every day.
  3. Abortion for convenience is common.
There are many other things to consider on this topic, but I think these 3 obviously relevant facts should never be overlooked. 

My best hope for you as you read this, is that you will see abortion for what it truly is: the premature ending of a human life.

If you’re someone affected by abortion, I hope you will have everything you need following that life-changing decision.

If you're currently facing this difficult choice, I hope you have all the most accurate and relevant information you need, even if some of it is hard to hear.

Let’s make good choices!