In a matter of weeks, COVID-19 has completely changed the landscape of the UK. Whether it’s how people live out their day-to-day lives, or the fundamental principles that constitute the way we are governed, life is barely recognisable.
However, despite this, a change made to the UK’s abortion laws announced by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) on 23 March 2020, came to many as a surprise. Some pro-life groups expressed their dismay calling the changes ‘wholly unacceptable,’ while medical professionals and organisations welcomed them.
However, the document was quickly redacted. A statement then appeared on the gov.uk website, reading: “The information on this page has been removed because it was published in error. This was published in error. There will be no changes to abortion regulations.”
MPs and medical professionals were confused at the sudden withdrawal of the legislation. Angered they demanded answers from the government. A week later, the government changed its stance again…
The emergency measures brought in outlined ‘temporary approval’ for women to take abortion medication (mifepristone and misoprostol) while in their homes. This was permitted with a consultation from a doctor via phone or video link. The measures also approved doctor’s homes as places where the abortion pills could be prescribed.
The document outlining the measures read: “The secretary of state for health and social care has approved two temporary measures in England to limit the transmission of coronavirus (Covid-19) and ensure continued access to early medical abortion services.”
Prior to this, by law, of the two abortion pills taken by women, the first had to be administered in a clinic under the supervision of two doctors. The second could be taken unsupervised at home.
These changes were welcomed by healthcare professionals and MPs alike, who were aware of and concerned about the reduced services available to women, and the requirement for women to travel to access these services.
With increased pressure on the NHS, healthcare professionals had raised fears about the sustainability of abortion clinics. Edward Morris, President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, had warned that clinics were on ‘the brink of collapse’. In addition to this, in the last few weeks the British Pregnancy Advice Service (BPAS) had to close 20 clinics, and was forced to cancel 1,120 appointments.
Medical organisations said the changes would lead to a reduced risk of spreading the virus. They also asserted that the revisions ensured the continuation of essential services for women.
Some pro-life groups had raised concerns about the safety of women taking the pill without medical supervision. However, in response Marie Stopes Medical Director Jonathan Lord said: “Evidence shows that telemedicine is safe and effective, and often preferred by women, and is in line with national and international recommendations including the UK’s NICE guidance.”
Speaking about the importance of the changes, Dr. Anne Lashford, Vice President of the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare, said: “It is crucial that we ensure women of all ages can continue to access effective contraception during the crisis, avoiding unplanned pregnancies which will likely lead to added strain on both maternity and abortion services.”
Despite receiving overwhelming support from a wide range of medical professionals, the government completely U-turned on the changes, without explanation.
A total of 13 different organisations including the Royal College of Obstetricians, the British Advisory Pregnancy Service and the Royal College of Midwives had rallied for the changes to be made amid the COVID-19 outbreak. When the relaxation of the abortion laws came into fruition, it was hailed as a major breakthrough.
Speaking about the changes, Jonathan Lord, Medical Director for Marie Stopes UK said: “We are delighted that the government has taken the sensible decision to relax restrictions on where medical abortions can take place, in light of COVID-19.” However within five hours, the revised guidance was deleted.
This went against the advice of many professional associations including Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. The college had stated that the new rules would both “reduce pressure on the health system” and “limit Covid-19 risk for women and health workers”.
Many expressed concern that this U-turn would mean that women would face being put at risk of infection. Without telemedicine they would be forced to take non-essential travel to hospitals and clinics. Others said that redacting the document completely undermined Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s lockdown guidance. Another issue with the redacted guidance, was that it could force women to use unsafe abortion methods, or alternatively, purchase unsafe online abortion medicine illegally.
It was estimated that the withdrawal of the new law would mean that 11,574 women would not have access to abortion services due to the UK’s lockdown.
Stella Creasy, a Labour MP, said: “It’s absurd to expect women to be able to travel during lockdown for a vital healthcare procedure that could be done at home.” She went on to say that the government’s decision risked thousands of women being ‘forced to continue’ with unwanted pregnancies because of their inability to access services.
She added: “Women are being treated as second class citizens and left in the lurch. The idea that we can simply forget about women’s healthcare needs for the duration of this crisis has to end now.”
Many asked for an explanation for the sudden change in direction, assuming that a ‘bureaucratic blunder’ was the cause. However, when confronted with questions, Health Secretary Matt Hancock merely stated that the government had no plans to change current regulations.
Some have suggested that the withdrawal came as a result of political pressure from within the Conservative Party, however no official explanation has been released.
Further confusion was added into the mix, when on 30 March 2020, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care confirmed that a relaxation of abortion laws would go ahead afterall.
Now, on a temporary basis, for the duration of the COVID-19 virus, medical abortions can now be administered to the home after either a video-link or phone consultation with a doctor. Women can then take the abortion pills unsupervised.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Public safety and continued access to key services is our priority during this difficult period. This measure will be on a temporary basis and must follow a telephone or e-consultation with a doctor.”
Many have called for the changes to be made permanent, while campaigners in Northern Ireland, where abortion was only recently made legal, are campaigning for the same telemedical abortion services.
Speaking about this Ann Furedi, Chief Executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), said, “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.”
Both the initial redaction of the bill, and the lack of law change in Northern Ireland, reveal a startling gendered inequality stemming from the government. This pandemic also draws attention to the importance of implementing abortion legislation that functions in any eventuality. Much more must be done to ensure that women have access to safe and effective abortion methods, regardless of where they live in the UK.