By Paul Waugh
Home abortions in England, Scotland and Wales are to be made easier during the coronavirus outbreak, the Department of Health has confirmed.
Under a temporary relaxation of the law, the two pills needed to terminate a pregnancy can now be prescribed after an online or phone consultation with a doctor, removing the previous requirement to attend a hospital or clinic in person.
The decision, which is a U-turn on advice issued just a week ago, was warmly welcomed by medical professionals and women’s rights groups who had warned that the national “lockdown” had made it difficult for abortion services to continue.
Over the next 13 weeks, it is estimated that 44,000 women in England and Wales are likely to need access to an early medical abortion.
A total of 13 different organisations – including the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), the Royal College of Midwives and the British Advisory Pregnancy Service (BPAS) – had written to health secretary Matt Hancock to urge him to liberalise the law.
As revealed by HuffPost UK last week, officials in the Department of Health had sent out an email and updated its website to signal a change in the law, but within hours that was withdrawn and Hancock had said there were no plans for a new policy.
However, on Monday, the department changed tack again to announce the shift towards a “temporary” liberalisation.
“Public safety and continued access to key services is our priority during this difficult period. We are updating our guidance so women who need an abortion up to 10 weeks and can’t access a clinic can use abortion pills at home,” a spokesperson said.
The change means that women can be prescribed and take at home both pills – mifepristone and misoprostol – needed for a medical abortion up to 10 weeks of pregnancy.
Labour MP Stella Creasy told HuffPost UK: “The secretary of state has made the right call reversing their decision to reverse the original guidance and ensure women can still access abortion services in England during the Covid-19 crisis.
“It should never be acceptable that in a crisis women’s healthcare needs are the first in line to be abandoned, so thank you to everyone who spoke up to ensure that this wasn’t the case.”
Creasy added that women in Northern Ireland should now be given similar access to healthcare if they require it.
In Northern Ireland, abortion care is now lawful, but services are not yet in place and telemedical abortion care is not permitted.
Edward Morris of the RCOG said: “Giving women the option of taking both abortion pills at home following a video consultation is safe and effective and has rightly been judged as a vital and necessary step if we are to limit the spread of Covid-19.
“Many women will no longer be forced to make the difficult decision between leaving their home and continuing with an unwanted pregnancy.”
Ann Furedi, CEO of British BPAS, said: “We welcome the confirmation we have received today that the government will re-instate telemedicine for early medical abortion in England.
“This will prevent tens of thousands of women from having to travel needlessly to clinics and will also enable many of our healthcare professionals to provide teleconsultations and prescriptions from the safety of their own homes.
“BPAS staff have shown superhuman strength over recent weeks in order to prevent the collapse of services and ensure women can access the care they need.”