On 27 October 1967 a private member’s bill, introduced by David Steel but backed by the government, was, after a heated debate and a free vote, passed. It came into effect on 27 April 1968. The act made abortion legal in the UK up to 28 weeks gestation. Though sometimes presented as a triumph for women’s rights, it rapidly reduced a major clinical problem – death from septic illegal abortions.
The scene had been set by the Bourne case in 1938, when a young woman was gang raped by a group of soldiers and became pregnant. Dr Alec Bourne agreed to perform an abortion for her, informed the police of his intention and was subsequently prosecuted. Bourne argued that it was necessary to perform the abortion to preserve the health of the young woman. The judge agreed that forcing her to continue with the pregnancy would have been tantamount to wrecking her life. The doctor was not convicted. This case set a legal precedent for performing an abortion to preserve a woman’s mental health.
Family doctors took rapid advantage of the legislation and the number of legal terminations soared year on year.
- For a fuller account of the events, see www.nhshistory.net