Abortion laws that punish women who have illegal terminations with life in prison should be scrapped, a body representing many of the UK’s childbirth doctors has said.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) said its council had voted strongly in favour of removing criminal sanctions associated with abortion as it should be treated as a “medical issue”.

The group, which has more than 10,000 members, said the panel had reached a “broad consensus” and adopted a statement that calls for the 24-week limit to be maintained through regulation instead.

Pro-choice campaigners welcomed the decision, however the move has also been criticised by some doctors who warned decriminalisation would be “dangerous”.

RCOG president Professor Lesley Regan said she was “pleased” with the council’s decision.

“I want to be clear that decriminalisation does not mean deregulation and abortion services should be subject to regulatory and professional standards, in line with other medical procedures,” she said in a statement.

“I strongly believe that the college has a responsibility to protect women’s health by ensuring access to this key healthcare service.”

Under the Abortion Act 1967, a woman can terminate a foetus up to 24 weeks after conception with the approval of two doctors, however there is no limit if continuing poses a substantial risk to the mother’s life or there are foetal abnormalities.

Meanwhile under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, it is a crime punishable with life in prison for a woman to abort her foetus or for anyone to help her.

The RCOG states: “Abortion services should be regulated; however, abortion – for women, doctors and other healthcare professionals – should be treated as a medical, rather than a criminal issue.

“The college is not calling for any change in gestational limits for abortion which should remain in place through the appropriate regulatory and legislative process.”

Charity BPAS, the UK’s largest provider of abortions, welcomed the decision as it means terminations will be subject to “the same robust healthcare laws and clinical standards that all other medical procedures are subject to”.

However Dr Kiran Eyre, a member of the British Medical Association’s south-east regional council, said it would breach doctors’ obligations not to harm patients.

“We all expect to be protected from external threat and damage to our bodies under the criminal law; the potentially sentient foetus should be afforded similar rights,” he told The Guardian.

“Decriminalisation is a radical step that cannot be reconciled with our principle of non-maleficence as the evidence currently stands.”

Concerns have been raised that some women are illegally turning to abortion pills purchased online as a last resort.

A recent study found some women in England, Scotland and Wales are shunning traditional routes such as the NHS in favour of seeking help online.