Abortion continued to be prohibited under British law until 1938.
In 1920 the Soviet Union legalized abortion on demand and the World League for Sexual Reform began in Berlin. The influential 1929 London Congress of the World League for Sexual Reform promoted the Soviet abortion law as an ideal for its pioneering secular ideology.
By 1932, supporters in the medical profession were lobbying the British Medical Association and in 1936, the Abortion Law Reform Association was established.
In 1938 Dr Alec Bourne aborted a 14-year old girl who had been raped by four soldiers, then turned himself in to the authorities as a test case. He attracted widespread public sympathy and was duly acquitted. Justice McNaughten told the jury that if Bourne believed that continuation of the pregnancy â€œwould make the woman a physical or a mental wreck', then he operated for the purpose only of preserving the life of the woman.
As a result of the Bourne case, more and more abortions began to be practised in Britain in cases where the woman's physical or mental health was thought to be in danger, a loophole in the law that was interpreted increasingly loosely. This ambiguous legal precedent was adopted by other Commonwealth nations.
In the early 1960s, the thalidomide tragedy (when doctors prescribed a drug to 1,000 pregnant women which caused missing or malformed limbs) caused public alarm. Many of the women were refused abortions.
In the 1966, encouraged by the Abortion Law Reform Association and other interest groups, Liberal MP David Steel, promoted his abortion bill. He was assisted by powerful Parliamentary allies and on 27th October, 1967, the Abortion Act became law in England, Scotland and Wales (but not in Northern Ireland).
Dr Bourne alarmed at the effect his action had had, became a founder member of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children in the UK.
In 1990, Section 37 amended the 1967 Abortion Act by introducing an upper time limit of 24 weeks for most abortions.