Women in England will be allowed to take the abortion pill at home by the end of this year, the government has revealed in a surprise announcement.
Health secretary Matthew Hancock confirmed the law will be changed to bring English practice in line with Scotland and Wales, following years of lobbying by campaign groups.
Current rules mean women have to take both early abortion pills required for a termination at a clinic, 24 to 48 hours apart.
Campaigners called for the law to be changed after some women revealed they began to miscarry before they got home, with stories of pregnancies being passed on public transport or in taxis.
One of those was Claudia Craig, who told HuffPost UK: “I’m so relieved that our voices have finally been heard and that experiences like mine will be a thing of the past for English women.”
Earlier this year, Craig wrote in a letter to health ministers: “I can’t imagine what it would have been like if we had been stuck in traffic for just two minutes longer, or if, like many women, I couldn’t afford to take a taxi.
“I collapsed almost as soon as I got inside and started vomiting and miscarrying on the bathroom floor.”
In 2011, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) – one the leading abortion providers in the UK – brought a legal challenge to enable women to use misoprostol at home, which failed after being contested by the Department of Health.
And in April this year the organisation, along with representatives from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) and other groups, wrote to former health secretary Jeremy Hunt to ask for a change in the law to mark 50 years since legal abortion care became available in the UK.
The groups said the two required clinic visits could be challenging to organise and are often uncomfortable or traumatic for women – an estimated one in three of whom will have an abortion by the time they reach 45.
Welcoming the announcement on Saturday from Hancock, who took over as health secretary just last month, a spokesman for BPAS told HuffPost: “We had hoped he might take a different approach to Jeremy Hunt, but it’s still a surprise that it has happened this quickly.”
As part of the new measures, the Department of Health and Social Care said safeguards would be introduced to protect women who opt to undergo the treatment at home, adding that it would now work with the key partners, including the RCOG, to develop clinical guidance and to implement the change quickly and safely.
Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, said: “Abortion can be a difficult experience so it is important that women feel safe and as comfortable as possible. This decision will increase choice for women and help ensure they receive safe and dignified care.”
Currently women in England being treated for a incomplete miscarriage can take the pills at home to trigger effectively the same process, a differentiation BPAS has called “completely perverse.”
Professor Lesley Regan, president of the RCOG, said: “Today’s announcement that use of misoprostol at home will be allowed in England is hugely welcomed and a major step forward for women’s healthcare. This simple and practical measure will provide women with significantly more choice and is the most compassionate care we can give them.
“It will allow women to avoid distress and embarrassment of bleeding and pain during their journey home from an unnecessary second visit to a clinic or hospital. It will also improve access to safe and regulated abortion care and take pressure off NHS services.”
Women in Scotland have been able to take the abortion pill at home since October last year and in April, Welsh ministers announced plans to follow suit, approving the move in June.
Ann Furedi, chief executive of BPAS, described the health department’s decision as “an outbreak of common sense”.
“It will dramatically improve the experience of the more than 100,000 women in England who undergo Early Medical Abortion every year,” she added.
“BPAS has long campaigned for this simple, evidence-based measure, which is standard practice across the world and endorsed by the World Health Organisation.
“Enabling women to use this medication at home rather than being forced to take it in a clinic means women will no longer risk pain and bleeding as they travel home after taking it, and means they can use it at the time that is right for them, when they are safe and comfortable in the privacy of their own homes.”
Furedi said the safety and efficacy of home use of misoprostol for early abortion, before 10 weeks gestation, had been “well established for many years”.
“Our only disappointment is that it has taken so long for a health secretary for England to authorise this, and that so many women have suffered needlessly in the interim,” she added.
“We applaud Matt Hancock for finally taking this important step, and look forward to offering this service to the women who need it as soon as possible.”