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NHS Family Planning Act and the Abortion Act

The contraceptive pill

The first human contraceptive pill was invented by Carl Djerassi in Mexico in 1951. The first commercially available oral contraceptive pill, Enovid, was invented by American chemist Frank Colton in 1960.

In 1961, Health Minister Enoch Powell announced that women who wished to have oral contraception would be able to receive it through the NHS. The Family Planning Association (FPA) approved the use of oral contraceptives in its clinics.

NHS Family Planning Act 1967

In 1967, parliament passed the NHS Family Planning Act, which enabled local health authority-funded family health clinics to give contraceptive advice to unmarried women, on both medical and social grounds.

Edwin Brooks MP introduced it as a Private Members Bill. He identified a social problem whereby low income groups risked financial difficulties from having more children than they could afford.

This, combined with the introduction of the pill and changes in societal attitudes, resulted in advice being made available to a much wider population.

Later, in 1974, the enactment of the NHS Reorganisation Act 1973 introduced a requirement for family planning services to be formally provided on the NHS.

Abortion Act 1967

The Abortion Act 1967 legalised abortion under certain conditions. From 1929, the Infant Life Preservation Act had amended the law, stating that it would not be an offence to carry out abortion for the sole purpose of preserving the life of the mother.

However, it took nearly another 40 years before the criteria were widened further. The Bourne case in 1938 was a turning point in the extension of the abortion legislation.

In 1938, Dr Alec Bourne agreed to perform an abortion on a 14-year-old girl who had been sexually assaulted by five off-duty British officers in the Royal Horse Guards. He announced his intention in advance.

Bourne created a test case and was later prosecuted. He argued that the abortion was necessary on mental health grounds and the judge agreed, setting new precedent.

In 1967, a private member's bill brought by David Steel MP legalised abortion under certain conditions. The act allowed for exceptions to the illegality of abortion by permitting doctors to carry out abortions under certain circumstances.

For an abortion to be legal, the Act required two doctors to justify it on the grounds that:

  • continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk to the life of the pregnant woman
  • termination would prevent grave permanent damage (physical or mental) to the woman
  • there was a substantial risk that, if the child were born, it would suffer from serious physical or mental abnormalities.

The Act did not legalise abortion, per se, but it provided a legal defence for carrying out a termination.


On this day 1961: Birth control pill 'available to all'.
BBC; nd.

Journal of Medical Ethics.
About abortion in Britain.
Journal of Medical Ethics.
2001; 27(2): 33–34.

Marks L V.
Sexual chemistry: a history of the contraceptive pill.
Yale University Press; 2010.