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Abortion is the common name for the medical process of ending pregnancy. Healthcare professionals may use the term termination of pregnancy or just termination to describe an abortion.

An abortion is different from a miscarriage (see miscarriage) where the pregnancy ends without any medical intervention (although medical treatment may be needed after a miscarriage). Confusingly, healthcare professionals sometimes refer to miscarriage as spontaneous abortion.

Many people have very strong views and opinions about abortion (both for and against), often based on deeply held religious, cultural or philosophical beliefs.  Whilst all of these views should be respected, the law in the UK (1) makes it legal to have an abortion in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy providing certain criteria are met (see next section).

The law on abortion (called the Abortion Act 1967) only covers the UK mainland (England, Scotland and Wales) and excludes Northern Ireland. 

The law also states that:

  • Abortions must be carried out in a hospital or licensed clinic.
  • Two doctors must agree that the requirements of the Abortion Act 1967 have been met.

NHS Abortions

In order to have an abortion on the NHS you need a referral of two doctors who have to agree that the requirements of the Abortion Act have been met. Usually the first doctor is the woman’s GP and the second is a doctor working at the hospital or clinic where the abortion takes place.

Sometimes women do not feel happy about approaching their own GP to ask to be referred for an abortion. If this is the case, doctors at some family planning clinics, young people’s clinics and some genito-urinary medicine (GUM) clinics will also refer women for an NHS abortion.

Doctors can refuse to certify a woman for an abortion because of their personal beliefs. If this is the case, they should recommend another doctor who can help.

Funding of NHS abortion services differ in various parts of the country; the level of NHS provision ranges from more than 90% of local demand to less than 60% in some areas. In some areas the NHS will pay for abortions to be provided by private clinics but in other areas it may be necessary to pay for an abortion in a private clinic.

Private Abortions

You can also refer yourself for an abortion at a private clinic although the NHS will not pay for this. The agreement of two doctors is still required before the abortion can take place, but the clinic will make the arrangements.

Costs for abortions in private clinics vary. The costs will depend on:

  • which organisation or company carries out the abortion,
  • the stage of pregnancy (earlier abortions are usually less expensive),
  • whether an overnight stay is needed.

If you are considering an abortion, it is important to talk to somebody about it as soon as possible.