‘Never in public interest’ to investigate abortion as crime, says Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists

24 January, 2024

New guidance tells medics not to report patients to the police

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists said it is ‘never in the public interest to investigate and prosecute women who have sought to end their own pregnancy’. Alongside other royal colleges, it has published new guidance this week which tells medics not to report their patients to the police. The College recommended women be treated with ‘care and compassion, without judgement or fear of imprisonment.’ Humanists UK, which has long campaigned for the total decriminalisation of abortion, has welcomed the move.

What the guidance says

  • Do not call the police or external agencies if a woman divulges, or you are suspicious, that she may have sought to end her own pregnancy unless she has given explicit consent to do so, or you consider it justified in her best interests.
  • Do not divulge information to the police or external agencies without a woman’s consent unless you are concerned for her safety or the safety of others.

The guidance has been issued following increasing criminalisation of women who are suspected of, or have been found guilty of ending their own pregnancies. Last year a woman was sentenced to prison for over a year for ending her own pregnancy, however the custodial sentence was overturned by the Court of Appeal who said she needed ‘compassion not punishment’. 

Abortion still a Crime

Many people are not aware that abortion remains a crime in England and Wales under the Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA) 1861, which carries a maximum punishment of life imprisonment. This is unless the procedure meets specific criteria outlined in the Abortion Act 1967 which provided an exemption to being found guilty of an offence under the OAPA, for example, if the abortion is carried out by a registered medical practitioner and is authorised by two doctors acting in good faith that certain other requirements are met.

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. It is supporting amendments put forward by Diana Johnson MP which seek to decriminalise abortion to the Criminal Justice Bill.

Humanists UK Public Affairs Manager Karen Wright said:

‘We welcome this guidance which seeks to put patient care at the heart of what medics do, and treat abortion as a medical, not criminal matter. Beyond the guidance issued, we call on Parliament to reform our Victorian abortion laws so no further women face criminal prosecution for having an abortion.’

Take abortion out of the British criminal code
Sign the petition and tell the Secretary of State for Justice and the Health Secretary:

Abortion shouldn’t be a crime. It’s a human right and basic healthcare.


For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Kathy Riddick at press@humanists.uk or phone 020 3675 0959.

Read Humanists UK motion on abortion decriminalisation.

Read more about our work on abortion.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 120,000 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.