When an abortion can be carried out 

In England, Wales and Scotland abortion is legal up until 24 weeks of pregnancy, although most abortions are carried out much earlier than this.

In rare circumstances, an abortion can sometimes be carried out legally after 24 weeks (see below).

The Abortion Act 1967

In accordance with The Abortion Act 1967, an abortion must usually be carried out before 24 weeks of pregnancy. The law states that:

  • abortions must be carried out in a hospital or a specialist licensed clinic
  • two doctors must agree that an abortion would cause less damage to a woman's physical or mental health than continuing with the pregnancy

The few situations when the law states an abortion may be carried out after 24 weeks are:

  • if it's necessary to save the woman's life
  • to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman 
  • if there is substantial risk that the child would be born with physical or mental abnormalities and be seriously handicapped

Generally, an abortion should be carried out as early in the pregnancy as possible, usually before 12 weeks and ideally before nine weeks where possible. It's rare for an abortion to be performed after 24 weeks.

Most abortions (around 90%) are carried out before a pregnancy reaches 13 weeks, and virtually all abortions (around 98%) are performed before 20 weeks.

The earlier an abortion is carried out, the easier and safer the procedure is to perform. However, you must be given enough time to consider all your options so you're as comfortable as possible with your decision.

To work out how many weeks pregnant you are, the calculation is usually made from the first day of your last period. If the exact stage of pregnancy is unclear, you may need an ultrasound scan.

Personal decision

Making a decision about whether to have an abortion isn't easy. Before deciding, you should discuss your situation with healthcare professionals, family members and, if applicable, your partner. You should consider all options and these can include:

  • abortion
  • possibly keeping the baby
  • more rarely, considering adoption for the baby

Always remember the final decision about whether or not to have an abortion is yours, and you should not be pressured into making a decision you might later regret.

If you are under 16 years of age, you can have an abortion without telling your parents, as long as two doctors believe it's in your best interests and you fully understand what is involved.

However, the doctors will encourage you to involve your parents or another adult in your decision-making process. This increases the amount of support you have available. If you choose to have an abortion, you have the right for it to remain confidential, regardless of your age.

Abortion statistics

In 2013, 185,331 abortions were carried out in England and Wales, compared with 185,122 in 2012 (an increase of 0.1%). 

91% of abortions were performed at less than 13 weeks of pregnancy, and 79% at less than 10 weeks.

The abortion rate was highest for women aged 22 years, and the majority of abortions (98%) were funded by the NHS.

Northern Ireland

The 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland.

Women can contact the Family Planning Association (FPA) in Northern Ireland on 0845 122 8687 for confidential counselling, information and support on all the options available.

Page last reviewed: 18/07/2014

Next review due: 18/07/2016