Women in England will have easier access to abortion pills for the next six months, but the temporary ‘pills in the mail’ scheme put in place because of Covid will then be scrapped in September.
Maggie Throup, the Minister of Public Health, confirmed on Thursday that women seeking to terminate a pregnancy by taking the two pills concerned at home would lose this right at the end of August.
Abortion law was changed in March 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic unfolded to allow women in England to be sent and take both pills at home instead of having to take the first in a clinic or hospital. The change was introduced at a time when many NHS care was on hiatus to ensure women wanting an abortion could still get one without having to visit a health facility.
In a written ministerial statement, Throup said the arrangements that were due to end next month would be extended until August 29 at midnight.
But she added: ‘The government will end the temporary approval put in place at the start of the pandemic which allows women to take both pills for early medical abortion up to 10 weeks gestation at home.
The pre-pandemic system will be back from September 1. It required women who had decided to have an early medical abortion to have an initial consultation with a clinician and take the first pill at a health facility before they could take the second at home.
However, Wales announced it was taking a different approach, giving women the permanent right to take both pills at home.
“I am confident that the arrangements are safe and bring significant benefits to women and girls who want to access abortion services, with reduced wait times enabling them to access the help they need more quickly. than would have been possible with the previous arrangements,” said Welsh Government Health Minister Eluned Morgan. “The benefits to the NHS are also significant, with fewer appointments required.”
Doctors, midwives, pro-choice groups and abortion providers want the government to continue to let women in England take both pills at home. They include the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the British Medical Association (BMA) and the Royal College of Midwives.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) called the scheme a ‘safe, effective and leading service’ and warned of the ‘disastrous’ consequences for women if it were scrapped in September.
“If at the end of this six month period the government were to indeed revoke the legal authorization for this service, it would be a shameful betrayal of women and a decision devoid of evidence and justice,” said Clare Murphy, chief executive of the BPAS.
Ending telemedicine abortion care “would force vulnerable women in the most difficult circumstances, who cannot access treatment in the clinic, to resort again to illegal methods and face criminal penalties as a result” for illegally buying pills online, Murphy added. Procuring an abortion or helping someone to have one remains a criminal offense despite the Abortion Act 1967.
Requests from women in the UK to buy pills online have dropped by 88% since the scheme began in 2020, research shows.
Dr Zoe Greaves, chair of the BMA’s medical ethics committee, said the decision “puts the well-being and safety of women at risk. Those most affected by this change will be those at greatest risk of harm, including women who experience sexual or domestic violence and those who are financially vulnerable.
“It’s a decision that puts politics ahead of women’s health.”
Fertility pioneer Robert Winston has urged ministers to continue the scheme, saying home abortions are safe and make it easier for women to have early abortions.
Throup said the decision to drop the program in September would be reconsidered. But Department of Health and Social Care sources said they would resist pressure to make the stay-at-home pill scheme permanent.
The Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, an anti-choice group, said letting women receive abortion drugs without an in-person consultation was “reckless and deadly”.
The future of the regime reportedly led to disagreements involving ministers and officials. Lord Kamall, the technology minister, recently called it “that difficult decision”.