Doctors' chiefs have backed decriminalising abortion, adding their voice to those calling for a change in legislation.
Delegates at the British Medical Association's annual conference voted in favour of changing the law on abortion so women would not be at risk of prosecution if they failed to get a doctors' permission before a termination.
Currently abortion is only legal if women have permission from a doctor who is satisfied that continuing with the pregnancy would be detrimental to their mental or physical health or wellbeing.
The BMA will now add its weight to lobbying parliament for a change in the law and the shift in stance could prove significant with both pro-life and pro-choice activists gearing up for campaigns to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Abortion Act this autumn.
Dr John Chisholm, chair of the BMA's medical ethics committee, said the vote meant the organisation thought abortion should be treated like any other medical procedure and be subject to regulations and certain standards.
'Abortion is currently a crime, with exceptions, throughout the UK,' he said.
'Following the debate, the majority of doctors were clear that abortion should be treated as a medical issue rather than a criminal one.
'What must be clear is that decriminalisation does not mean deregulation.
'The debate and the BMA's new policy only relate to whether abortion should or should not be a criminal offence - the policy does not address the broader issue of when and how abortion should be available.'
The vote does not change the BMA's support for the current 24-week limit for abortion.
But the chair of the Christian Medical Fellowship, Peter Saunders, said doctors would be 'dismayed' by the decision, adding the vote was for 'abortion on demand, without restriction including on length of gestation and sex'.
He pointed to research that suggested seven in 10 women wanted to see the abortion time limit reduced to 20 weeks or below and more than nine in 10 favoured a total ban on sex-selective abortion.
'The polling is very clear that women and indeed the wider public do not support deregulating abortion to allow a free-for-all, which is being proposed by these extreme pro-abortion campaigners. In fact the poll found huge support for tightening the law to end the practice of sex-selective abortions and to look at reducing the upper time limit,' he said.
'Decriminalising abortion would remove all protection to unborn babies regardless of any factor, gestation, sex or disability. This would mean that anyone at all could cause the death of an unborn baby in any way whatsoever, with or without the mother's consent, and be liable only for any damage done to the mother.'
Andrea Williams, CEO of Christian Concern, said: 'This debate and vote had no public mandate. Recent polling shows that only 1 per cent of women want to legalise abortion up to birth. 70 per cent of women want the current limit of 24 weeks to be lowered and 91 per cent desire an explicit ban on "gender-abortion".' She said the vote showed a 'shocking disrespect for human life'.