Government U-Turn Over Plans To Allow Home Abortions In Coronavirus Lockdown

Doctors and midwives called for relaxation of law, but new advice was suddenly withdrawn.

The department of health has come under fire after sending mixed messages to women over the possibility of allowing abortions at home during the coronavirus outbreak.

On Monday, the government had posted fresh advice on its website that would have allowed women worried about Covid-19 transmission to take pills for early medical abortion “without the need to first attend a hospital or clinic”.

The advice - titled ‘Temporary Approval Of Home Use For Both Stages Of Early Medical Abortion’ - also proposed that medical staff would be able to prescribe such pills remotely.

Under current rules, two separate medical professionals are required to sign off in person an early abortion’.

An email from senior officials in the department, seen by HuffPost UK, also clearly stated that “the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has approved” both “temporary measures in England to limit the transmission of COVID-19 and ensure continued access to early medical abortion services”.

The email from DHSC on Monday night.
The email from DHSC on Monday night.
HuffPost UK

But the advice was suddenly withdrawn without explanation late on Monday, prompting anger and confusion among women’s rights campaigners - and fears that during the so-called lockdown women will have to tell police officers they have left their homes to access abortion help.

Labour MP Stella Creasy said that it was “absurd” to expect women to travel to get medical procedure that could be done at home, while doctors and midwives groups said it was a “waste” of staff time and resources to continue current restrictions at a time of national pressure on the NHS.

BPAS estimates that over the next 13 weeks, 44,000 women in England and Wales are likely to need access to an early medical abortion.

Some 13 different organisations - including the Royal College of Obstetricians, the Royal College of Midwives and the British Advisory Pregnancy Service - had written to health secretary Matt Hancock to urge him to liberalise the law.

The letter had warned: “In the current circumstances with Covid-19 meaning doctors are self-isolating or off sick and the NHS under immense pressure, it wastes valuable time, puts everyone at greater risk of spreading or contracting coronavirus and risks our ability to provide abortion care at all.”

Campaigners were delighted at the apparent lifting of current requirements when the changes appeared on the DHSC website but had their hopes dashed just hours later.

Creasy told HuffPost UK: “It’s absurd to expect women to be able to travel during lockdown for a vital healthcare procedure that could be done at home.

“The department of health seemed to recognise that by publishing new guidance. But it’s done a U-turn and that advice has mysteriously disappeared. That risks thousands of women being forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy because they cannot access medical services.

“The government must legislate and regulate to make it possible for women to be able to access early abortion services at home urgently.

“Those of us who will watch out for women’s rights will not let them forget it if they let women down. I’ve been contacted by a woman who has an immune system problem, she’s one of the 1.5 million but she still needs an abortion.

“Women who are self-isolating, told to stay at home - or don’t particularly want to have a conversation with a police officer about why they need to travel - deserve better.”

A spokeswoman for BPAS said: “We were staggered by the reversal which we can only assume is a bureaucratic blunder which will soon be rectified.

“It simply makes no sense at all that as the prime minister was ordering people to stay in their homes last night the department of health was overturning a decision which would have enabled tens of thousands of women to access early abortion care lawfully at home, protecting their own health, that of their families, and that of the doctors, nurses and midwives who care for them.

“Women with heath conditions, those self-isolating or caring for poorly family members simply cannot leave their homes at the moment - we are being contacted by women in desperate circumstances, incredibly anxious about what they should do.

“We urge the government to reinstate this safe and sensible policy as well as amend the law to enable one healthcare professional to authorise an abortion. The future of the UK’s abortion service and the health and well-being of many thousands of women with it depends on this.”

The DHSC, which had said the new advice had been “published in error”, has been contacted for further comment.


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