UK retracts move to let women undergo medical abortions at home without going to a clinic due to coronavirus
Hours after the revised guidance was published on the gov.uk website, the changes were pulled down and replaced with the message that this was published in error and there will be no changes to abortion regulations
The UK government has withdrawn a decision that would have temporarily allowed women to undergo early medical abortion in their own homes by taking abortion pills without the need to go to a hospital or clinic amid the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown measures.
The initial announcement enabling remote access to abortion was to limit transmission of COVID-19. It had said that those wanting to terminate an early pregnancy can take two pills at home instead of going to a clinic.
The announcement was in response to a number of organizations that wrote to Health Secretary Matt Hancock "urging him to amend the law during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak to stop non-essential travel of women to undergo an abortion," according to a report by The Independent.
The letter was signed by organizations such as the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) and the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (FSRH).
Women seeking early medical abortion take two tablets. "The first, mifepristone, stops the hormone that allows the pregnancy to continue working. The second, misoprostol, is normally taken 24 to 48 hours later and encourages the womb to contract to pass the pregnancy. After four to six hours the lining of the womb breaks down, causing bleeding and loss of the pregnancy. Under current regulations, women wanting to end a pregnancy have to go to a registered clinic to collect and take the first pill. They are given the second medication to take at home," stated a BBC report.
However, hours after the revised guidance was published on the gov.uk website, the document was pulled down and replaced with the message that this was published in error and that there will be no changes to abortion regulations.
"The page you're looking for is no longer available The information on this page has been removed because it was published in error," the page now reads.
After the policy change was overturned, BPAS said that the Health Secretary's refusal to listen to scientific evidence on protecting women's health during this pandemic is putting women at severe risk and abortion services are already buckling under pressure.
"The government is currently refusing to follow advice from scientific and professional bodies to enable telemedicine for early medical abortion so women can be cared for in their own homes to protect their health, reducing the pressure on already buckling services with an upsurge anticipated in unwanted pregnancies," says a statement issued by the BPAS.
It says that 23% of abortion clinics run by BPAS, which cares for 100,000 women every year, have been shut due to staff sickness and isolation, with further closures expected.
The BPAS estimates that 44,000 women will need abortion care in the next 13 weeks. "Despite instruction to avoid unnecessary travel by the Prime Minister, in the next 13 weeks as the pandemic reaches its peak, at least 44,000 women will have to leave their homes needlessly to access care, with clinic closures forcing them to travel across the country for care and to mix in cramped NHS waiting rooms where distancing is impossible," says the statement.
The BPAS says that women with severe health issues who have been told to self-isolate say they are being forced to choose between risking their health by leaving their house and being compelled to continue an unwanted pregnancy that also threatens their health.
"Vulnerable women are already turning outside the regulated healthcare system for help from online providers, breaking the law and without the inbuilt safeguarding and support provided by regulated services. Abortion providers say services are 'at risk of collapse' if the Prime Minister does not act swiftly," it says.
The BPAS is also encouraging people to email their local MP asking them to put pressure on the UK government to enable safe medical abortions at home.
Dr Jonathan Lord, the co-chair of the RCOG Abortion Taskforce and British Society of Abortion Care Providers (BSACP), says that accessing care remotely by telemedicine is already recommended as best practice by the UK NICE guidelines.
He explains that joint guidelines from the RCOG, RCM, FSRH, and BSACP confirm that this is safe, effective, recommended by many healthcare systems and is the only reasonable way to run services during the pandemic without endangering both women and NHS staff.
"I simply cannot understand why the Government is behaving in such a cruel and reckless manner towards women’s health. To force women to have to come out of self-isolation, mix with others in waiting rooms — and in many NHS waiting areas, distancing is impossible — and potentially infect others and NHS staff is quite extraordinarily irresponsible," says Lord.
Not everyone agrees that the decision to backtrack the policy decision is wrong. The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) had reacted angrily to the news that the Department of Health has authorized home use for "both stages of early so-called medical abortion during the coronavirus pandemic."
It welcomed the reversal and said, "This radical and most disturbing policy would have placed more women at risk."