Reduction of abortion limits – the timeline of life

Calls by Maria Miller, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health, for a reduction in the maximum time limit at which abortion may be legally performed in Great Britain are but the latest developments in this controversial area, where the very words chosen to describe this limit, or the choice of supporting information, are often taken to represent the opinions of their user, here.

The ministers’ statements have been analyzed by Peter Saunders of Christian Medical Comment here, and here, and whilst these are made from a particular point of view, they provide an indication of the arguments of the ‘pro-life’ proponents. A summary of the ‘pro-choice’ arguments from the women’s rights point of view has been published by the BBC, here.

To these must be added the legislation currently in place in Great Britain, which tends to currently-held medical considerations and is not  aligned to religious and ethical beliefs. For consistency, it is necessary for the limits applying to legal personhood to read across to other areas of legislation, such as that concerning the registration of births and deaths, the treatment of foetal remains and stillbirths.

The following table attempts to summarize the legal, religious, medical and other criteria and guidance that apply in Great Britain to the development of the foetus, presented chronologically from conception until shortly after birth. The law in Northern Ireland is different and has been covered in recent posts, here.

Criterion Time Definition Legislation
Religious, (Roman Catholic) Moment of conception to birth ‘Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life’ Paragraph 2270, Catechism of the Catholic Church, Apostolic Letter Laetamur MagnopereOffences and penalties are with the 1983 Code of Canon Law
Legal Moment of conception to birth Article 2, ECHR ECtHR declined to make ruling on right to life of a foetus: Evans v The United Kingdom [2007] ECtHR (GC)(No. 6339/05); and Vo v France [2004] ECtHR (GC) (No. 53924/00)Ruling in the English Courts, Re: F(in utero) 1988] Fam 122, (CA). A foetus cannot be made ward of court and control imposed over the pregnant mother to benefit the unborn child.
Religious, (Roman Catholic) Moment of conception to abortion Completed abortion Canon 1398: ‘A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae (i.e. automatic) excommunication’. Canon 1329, §2: ‘Accomplices who are not named in the law or precept incur an a latae sententiae penalty attached to a delict if without their assistance the delict would have been committed, and the penalty is of such a nature that it can punish them’. Otherwise they can be punished by ferendae sententiae (after sentencing, i.e. non-automatic) penalties’
Medical Up to 14 days, or appearance of the ‘primitive streak’ Time limit applicable to embryo research s4(a)(3) Abortion Act 1967, c.87 as amended by Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 c.22.
Medical (Statistics) 13 weeks 91% of abortions take place at under 13 weeks gestation, at which point the baby weighs 25g Department of Health Statistics for 2011
Medical (Statistics) 17 weeks “There is clear evidence of different, ad hoc, modifications of working practices that permit the consistent recovery of remains following cremation of foetuses as young as 17 weeks gestation in adult cremators.” Mortonhall Report, Edinburgh City Council
  17 weeks Baby weighs around 150g. NHS data
  28 weeks Baby weighs around 1kg NHS data
Legal Up to 24 weeks Time limit for abortion in Great Britain s1(1)(a) Abortion Act 1967, c.87 as amended by Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 c.22.Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929
Legal Up to 24 weeks Certification not required for foetal burial or cremation. Hence: no legal requirement for disposal of foetus to be registered or specific controls applied; no licence required for exhumation. Births and Deaths Registration Act 1926, c. 48, as amended. Dead foetus or foetal remains may be regarded as ‘property’ in common law Doodeward v Spence or in relation to human rights, following Re Crawley Green Road Cemetery.
Medical(Guidance) Up to 24 weeks Guidance on good practice for disposal of foetal and other human tissue. Human Tissue Authority, Code of Practice 5: Disposal of human tissue
Medical (Statistics) At 24 weeks Foetus considered viable at 24 weeks. For very few live births (0.1%) occurring before, infant mortality rates extremely high, (877.3 deaths/ 1,000 live births. Majority of these deaths (90.3 per cent) during the early neonatal period (the first week of life). Data from Office of National Statistics, for 2010.
Medical(Statistics) 24 to 36 weeks, pre-term babies Infant mortality rates. 24.3 deaths per 1,000 live births. Data from Office of National Statistics, for 2010..
Legal After 24 weeks Definition of still birth: ’any child born after the twenty-fourth week of pregnancy and which did not at any time after birth, breathe or show any other signs of life’ s2(1) Cremation (England and Wales) Regulations 2008, SI 2841
Legal After 28 weeks Presumption in law that if a woman is pregnant for 28 weeks, the child en ventre sa mere is capable of being born alive. s1(2) Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 c34
Medical (Guidance) 37 weeks to 2 months of age Organ donation not possible as “given the current state of knowledge, it is rarely possible confidently to diagnose brain-stem death at this age”. Code of Practice for the Diagnosis and Confirmation of Death, Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, 2008
Medical(Statistics) Babies born at term Infant mortality rate: 1.6 deaths per 1,000 live births Data from Office of National Statistics, for 2010.
Medical(Statistics) 42 weeks and over, post term babies Infant mortality rate: 1.6 deaths per 1,000 live births Data from Office of National Statistics, for 2010.
Medical Up to 28 weeks after birth Baby or foetus of any gestational age which is born showing signs of life and dies before the age of 28 days is a live birth and neonatal death  

Absent from this timeline is information on non-Christian faiths, for which a short summary cannot capture the many variations and subtleties of belief. Some Muslims consider 120 days to be the point of ensoulement and this is regarded by some as the point after which an abortion is not permissible unless the defect in the embryo puts the mother’s life in danger, here.  However, other Islamic theologians differ, here, and in a number of countries interpret the protection of unborn children more conservatively.

There is no single Buddhist view concerning abortion; and although the Sikh code of conduct does not deal directly with abortion it is generally forbidden in Sikhism because it is said to interfere with the creative work of God.  Classical Hindu texts forbid abortion; and some Hindu theologians believe that abortion past the third month is a destruction of the soul’s current incarnate body.  Orthodox Jews oppose abortion after the 40th day subject to health-related exceptions: Reform and Conservative Jews tend to allow greater latitude for abortion; and the Talmud states that a foetus is not legally a person until it is delivered.


Issues associated with abortion are a frequent topic of this web log, and have included considerations of the law in Ireland, here, and here, conscientious objection to involvement, here, embryo screening, here, and self-induced abortion near full-term, here.

The table demonstrates the many interrelated factors that need to be taken into consideration when addressing abortion and related issues. It is not intended as a commentary on any specific case, but is presented as a source of reference for future analysis.


The above considerations cannot accommodate policy criteria that are based upon public opinion rather than medical evidence, as in the comments of Maria Miller who has been reported as saying

“I want to make sure that the law keeps pace with people’s views on this issue.”

“Whether it’s to do with medics, whether it’s to do with women themselves, whether it’s to do with children’s health, it’s a small reduction which I think would go a long way to make sure that there’s a pressure on the medical profession to keep evolving the way that they assess neonatal health and the way they assess maternal health as well.”

Unsurprisingly, these views are at odds with those of Anna Soubry, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health.