Department of Health u-turns on abortion laws during coronavirus pandemic

30 March 2020, 17:51

Women will be allowed at-home abortions
Women will be allowed at-home abortions. Picture: Getty

By Maddie Goodfellow

Abortion rules have been relaxed for the second time in just over a week to allow women to take the pills at home during the coronavirus pandemic.

Last Monday, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said it would allow women and girls to take abortion pills at home, and for doctors to prescribe from their homes.

However, just hours later, the statement was removed from the department's website, with officials saying it was "published in error".

Health Secretary Matt Hancock later told MPs that abortion rules will not be changed as part of the response to the Covid-19 outbreak.

Now, in another U-turn, the department has said women needing an abortion up to 10 weeks can use abortion pills at home after a consultation with a medical practitioner over the phone or via the internet.

In a letter to various health bodies, the DHSC said Mr Hancock has also approved measures to allow doctors to prescribe the medicines - Mifepristone and Misoprostol - from their homes.

The measures will last for up to two years. It is understood the updated guidance has not yet been made public.

Women's groups have said it is crucial for women to have access to abortions during the pandemic
Women's groups have said it is crucial for women to have access to abortions during the pandemic. Picture: Getty

A spokesman for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists said: "We welcome today's decision to allow women seeking an early medical abortion to remain at home, have their consultation performed remotely and be sent a treatment package through the post.

"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.

"This change in practice will reduce pressure on the health system while limiting the unnecessary risk of infection for women, their families and frontline health workers."

Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), said: "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."

Last week, BPAS warned that its services were at breaking point, with a quarter of its clinics closed.

Around 44,000 women are estimated to need abortions over the next 12 weeks.

The organisation said it remains "extremely concerned" for women in Northern Ireland, where telemedical care is not permitted.

Ms Furedi continued: "As a result, women are being forced to travel hundreds of miles via ferry and public transport to clinics in England at a time when they are also being told to stay at home to save lives.

"We urge policymakers to now implement similar measures to permit telemedical abortion services in Northern Ireland as a matter of urgency."

The Alliance For Choice campaign group said it was aware of someone taking an overdose after a hospital in Northern Ireland refused to provide an abortion.

They had initially intended to travel to England but their appointment was cancelled due to the Covid-19 travel restrictions.

The organisation said: "Due to the Covid-19 lockdown the safety net of travelling to England is gone; the option of safe pills bought online is gone; the network of activists helping people have a safe abortion is gone.

"The dozens a week who need an abortion are stil there. They must be cared for.

"Otherwise we will likely see more people harming themselves either through attempts to take their own life, or by using dangerous and desperate methods in the hopes of causing a miscarriage."