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Medicine Interview Hot Topics: Abortion Debate

​Key Information

Abortion is legal in England, Scotland and Wales assuming that the criteria of the 1967 Abortion Act are met. The criteria are as follows:

  • Risk to the life of the pregnant woman;
  • A necessity for abortion to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman;
  • Risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family (up to a term limit of 24 weeks of gestation); or
  • Substantial risk that if the child were born, it would ‘suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped’


In Northern Ireland, abortion is legal providing that the criteria in the Abortion (Northern Ireland) (No. 2) Regulations 2020 are met.
Doctors have a right of conscientious objection unless the woman is at risk of death or serious injury.
However, patients also have a right to receive objective and non-judgemental care from their physician. Therefore, doctors who object are required to inform their patient of this and tell them that they may see another doctor. 

​The Issues & Debate

Those that are against abortion may be against it for religious or moral reasons. The moral argument normally takes the following path: we know that deliberately killing an innocent human is wrong, and we also may believe that a foetus is an innocent human. Therefore abortion is an act of deliberate killing of an innocent human, and is therefore morally wrong. If we accept the foetus’ right to live, then for the foetus to die (i.e. for abortion to occur) there must be an imperative that is as morally important as the foetus’ own right to live. The only possible imperative is the mother’s right to live, meaning that in this instance abortion would be permissible only if it saves the mother’s life.

However, one must consider if the foetus is a human being. Is it a separate being to its mother? Should its right to live outweigh its mother’s right to decide what to do with her body? We can reorganise these points to make the decisions that a pregnant woman and her doctor may face more obvious: does a foetus have a right to be carried in a woman’s womb until it is born? Is a woman’s right to decide what to do with her body more important than the right to life?

​Looking at the Implications of the Law

We must also consider if there is an answer to the following question – when does a foetus become human? In the UK, the answer to that question is seemingly 24 weeks – that is the cutoff after which abortion is only permissible if there is severe risk to the woman´s life or a severe fetal abnormality. This limit was 28 weeks until 1990.

You will have your own view on the ethics of abortion. The key is to remember that as a doctor your role is to help your patients, and to do so within the confines of the law as best as your ability allows. The minutiae of the abortion debate will always be argued over, and some of the details may well appear somewhat arbitrary. However, as it stands the rulings are the result of years of work towards a just goal – allowing women to have control of their own bodies.

Example Interview Questions

  • Should women be able to have an abortion if their life is not at risk?
  • What do you know about the law on abortion in the UK?
  • Has the law on abortion in the UK changed in the last 50 years?
  • Do you know what reasons might permit a woman to have an abortion in the UK?
  • Should doctors that are anti-abortion be allowed to practice in the UK?
  • Is the law on abortion the same in all parts of the UK?
  • Talk to us about the abortion debate. Is abortion morally right?

Interview Questions & Example Answers

Should women be able to have an abortion if their life is not at risk?

As it stands, women are able to have an abortion in the UK if their life is at risk, if having the abortion may prevent grave permanent injury – be it physical or mental – if there is a risk of injury to any children in the woman’s family, of if there is a substantial risk that if the child were born, it would suffer from severe physical or mental abnormalities. We can therefore deduce that from UK law, women are able to have an abortion even if their life is not at direct risk – a stance that I personally agree with. I believe that avoiding damage to mental health, a woman’s welfare or physical health is vital and entirely just.


What do you know about the law on abortion in the UK?

Abortion is legal in England, Scotland and Wales assuming that the criteria of the 1967 Abortion Act are met. In Northern Ireland, abortion is legal providing that the criteria in the Abortion (Northern Ireland) (No. 2) Regulations 2020 are met. We must also consider when the law dictates that a foetus has become a human being – this was previously 28 weeks, until 1990. After that time, it has been listed as 24 weeks – the cut-off after which an abortion is only permissible if there is a severe foetal abnormality or risk to the mother’s health.


Has the law on abortion in the UK changed in the last 50 years?

The Abortion Act of 1967 has remained in place since, in both England and Wales. Whilst Scotland’s abortion guidelines were devolved to the Scottish Parliament, they maintain the 1967 ruling. In Northern Ireland, a variety of rulings were in place, before the Offences against the Person act 1861 was finally repealed in October 2019 – meaning that abortion is no longer a criminal offence. The only change in other parts of the UK is the alteration of the 28-week cut-off point to 24 weeks, whereafter there must be a severe risk to health of either the baby or mother in order to have an abortion.


Do you know what reasons might permit a woman to have an abortion in the UK?

The following reasons would allow a woman in the UK to have an abortion:

risk to the life of the pregnant woman.
a necessity for abortion to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman.
risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family (up to a term limit of 24 weeks of gestation); or
substantial risk that if the child were born, it would ‘suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped’

Should doctors that are anti-abortion be allowed to practice in the UK?

Presently, doctors that are anti-abortion are permitted to practice in the UK. I personally believe that this is the correct stance, as one may be a brilliant doctor and yet still be anti-abortion. The only caveat for a doctor in this position is that they must refer any patient who comes to them for an abortion on to another doctor that they believe will do as good a job as they would have done (or better) and provide competent medical care. This is, in my view, a fair ruling that allows patients to remain safe and doctors to maintain their own private and personal views.


Is the law on abortion the same in all parts of the UK?

No. Abortion rules are different in Northern Ireland to England, Scotland and Wales. Northern Ireland maintained the illegality of abortion until very recently – with sections of the Offences against the Person Act of 1861 being in place, which made abortion an act of manslaughter. In 2019 these sections were repealed, and the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020 commenced on March 21 2020, which permitted abortions to be carried out by a registered medical professional. Thus, whilst the law under which they are permitted is different, abortions are now legal across the UK.


Talk to us about the abortion debate. Is abortion morally right?

This is a personal question, and one that may be answered differently. I personally understand that the arguments against abortion are made for religious or moral reasons, with the moral reason taking the following path: we know that deliberately killing an innocent human is wrong, and we also may believe that a foetus is an innocent human. Therefore, abortion is an act of deliberate killing of an innocent human, which is of course morally wrong – therefore abortion is wrong. Therefore, the only possible imperative, following this path, for abortion is the mother’s right to life. However, we should also consider if the foetus is a human being. Is it a separate being to its mother? Should its right to live outweigh its mother’s right to decide what to do with her body? We can reorganise these points to make the decisions that a pregnant woman and her doctor may face more obvious: does a foetus have a right to be carried in a woman’s womb until it is born? Essentially, there is no ‘morally correct’ answer – one may have differing views, but one should keep in mind a woman’s right to her body, and to her mental and physical health being guaranteed as far as possible.

​How to answer questions on the abortion debate

When answering questions on this topic, remember to present a careful and balanced point of view. There isn’t a ‘right’ answer to give – your interviewers will want to see that you are empathetic, understand the difficulties of giving a definitive answer, and consider your answer in light of regulation and trying to help patients. If you are anti-abortion, make sure to explain that this viewpoint would either not prevent you from providing abortions, or that you would refer patients on to another doctor and ensure that they received the same high standard of care from them.

​How can you include the topic in your medicine interview

This topic will not link readily to others, and as a particularly difficult ethical and moral debate you would perhaps be well-placed leaving its inclusion up to your interviewers.

Medicine Interview Hot Topics ​Further Reading....

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