Humanists UK urges decriminalisation of abortion as woman faces sentencing under Victorian era law

12 June, 2023

In response to the recent case of a woman in England due to be sentenced today for inducing her abortion, Humanists UK members passed an urgent motion recommitting the charity to its policy in favour of decriminalising abortion in England and Wales.

As reported by Hannah Al-Othman in The Sunday Times,

‘NHS doctors and MPs have urged a judge not to jail a woman who has admitted illegally inducing her abortion during lockdown. Medics fear that if she is sent to prison, their ability to provide abortion services will be undermined and patients will be less likely to be honest with them, while politicians want changes to the law to stop vulnerable women from facing prosecution.

‘…The offence the woman pleaded guilty to in March is of procuring drugs to induce an abortion under the Offences against the Person Act, legislation dating to 1861. It is understood she has said that she was not aware how advanced the pregnancy was and due to lockdown was not able to attend a scan.’

At the charity’s AGM in Liverpool on Sunday, members unanimously passed an emergency motion from Humanists UK patron and President of Doctors for Choice Wendy Savage, which read:

‘In light of growing threats to the right to abortion, this meeting reaffirms the support of Humanists UK for the decriminalisation of abortion in England and Wales.’

Humanists UK has been campaigning for many years to move existing abortion regulations from the criminal code to the civil law, as with other medical procedures, to guard against the possibility that a woman in vulnerable circumstances – such as those facing domestic violence – could fall foul of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act for abortion.

Humanists UK is concerned by the increasing fervour of anti-abortion activists, including those targeting women directly outside abortion clinics. In 2021, Humanists UK again urged decriminalisation of abortion to protect women’s rights after Humanists UK revealed that the UK Government had unilaterally removed ‘women’s reproductive and sexual rights’ from a multinational statement on women’s rights. This happened not long after the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade there.

Many people don’t know that abortion in Great Britain was never truly decriminalised. In law, abortion remains a crime in England and Wales under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. Instead, in 1967, a compromise was made that created a legal defence, provided that a woman had the sign-off of two doctors and other similar regulations.

The only part of the UK where abortion is fully decriminalised is Northern Ireland, where the new law was passed in 2019 by the UK Parliament to reflect the recommendations of the UN Committee for Elimination of Discrimination Against Women report on the UK. Humanists UK briefed MPs and peers ahead of those debates in 2019, and is campaigning for the same approach to be taken across the whole of the UK.

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson said: 

‘It is shocking that in 2023 in Britain a woman faces a sentence of up to life imprisonment for having an abortion under a law passed at a time women could not even vote.

‘It is not right that the law presumes by default that any woman who chooses to end a pregnancy is a criminal, unless she meets certain conditions. What is happening today is a tragedy which should inspire MPs and peers to make updating the law in England and Wales an urgent political priority.

‘In recent years, Parliament has already shown in relation to Northern Ireland how swiftly and straightforwardly it can create new regulations for abortion with no criminal underpinning. It is time that this same urgency was applied to the law across the whole of the UK.’


For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at or phone 020 7324 3072 or 020 3675 0959.

Read more about our work on abortion.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 110,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.