Temporary Changes to UK Abortion Legislation during Covid-19 Outbreak update 31 March 2020

U.K. Government Changes Regulations on Abortion Pills during Coronavirus Outbreak

I have been contacted by constituents who have expressed concern at the temporary relaxation of the rules around abortion provision.

Around 180,000 abortions are carried out in England each year, with medical abortions the most common way of ending an unwanted pregnancy, official government figures show.

Women wanting an early medical abortion – that's in the first trimester of pregnancy – take two types of tablet. 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.

Under usual 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 (rather than having to return to the clinic 24-48 hours later). 

This change will allow women to have a tele-conference appointment with a clinician and to take the first set of pills at home, rather than attend the clinic for both the appointment and the first set of pills.

This change has been supported by expert bodies including the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Midwives, the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Health, and the British Society of Abortion Care Providers, all of whom attest to its safety and effectiveness. Several other countries, including Canada and Australia, already have this system in place. Additional countries, including France, are planning to change their usual procedures during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Doctors, nurses, and midwives who provide abortion care are all well-used to undertaking full safeguarding evaluations for all patients, and have said that they are more than capable of assessing a woman’s state of mind via electronic means. This is the same process that is being used for other essential services like maternity care where safeguarding is similarly important.

Providing services remotely protects women against contracting Covid-19 because it removes the requirement to travel and attend a clinic. The impact of coronavirus and self-isolation rules on abortion services have led to one provider having to close around 25% of their clinics. For women in the Bexhill and Battle constituency, who would tend to travel to Hastings or Eastbourne, they would have to travel all the way to Brighton to collect medication.

Some women have been advised by medical professionals not to leave their house for the next 12 weeks. These include women with serious medical conditions and women who cares for those with these conditions, including their children. Without a change in the law, these women would have had to choose between endangering themselves or their family, or being forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy.

I would have preferred this change to have been in the emergency legislation which Parliament passed because it would have given MPs the ability to debate the measures. However, the Government has the powers to make these changes and I support them for the reasons stated above. I know it may disappoint some constituents but I should be straight and confirm that I would support this change on a permanent basis were this ever considered. The rules on abortion need updating, not only to include this amendment but also to consider whether 24 weeks from gestation is the correct starting point. In the Republic of Ireland, which has overhauled its legislation to provide for abortion provision, the starting point is 12 weeks from gestation. Arguably, our 24 week limit in Great Britain is, like the need to visit a clinic, out of step with advances in healthcare and science.