Women in England will be able to access abortion pills more easily for the next six months, but the temporary “pills by post” scheme brought in because of Covid will then be scrapped in September.
Maggie Throup, the public health minister, confirmed on Thursday that women seeking to terminate a pregnancy by taking the two pills involved at home would lose that right at the end of August.
Abortion law was amended in March 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic was unfolding, to allow women in England to be sent and take both pills at home instead of having to take the first at a clinic or hospital. The change was introduced at a time when much NHS care was being disrupted to ensure that women seeking a termination could still get one without needing to go to a health facility.
In a written ministerial statement Throup said the arrangements that were due to end next month would be extended until midnight on 29 August.
But she added: “The government will end the temporary approval put in place at the beginning of the pandemic that allows women to take both pills for early medical abortion up to 10 weeks gestation at home.”
The pre-pandemic system will return from 1 September. 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 in a healthcare setting before being able to take the second one at home.
However, Wales announced it was taking a different approach, giving women a permanent right to take both pills at home.
“I am satisfied that the arrangements are safe and bring significant benefits to women and girls who wish to access abortion services, with reduced waiting times enabling them to access the help they need more quickly than would have been possible under the previous arrangements,” said Eluned Morgan, the health minister in the Welsh government. “The benefits to the NHS are also significant, with a reduced number of appointments being required.”
Doctors, midwives, pro-choice groups and abortion providers want the government to continue letting women in England take both pills at home. They include the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the British Medical Association (BMA) and the Royal College of Midwives.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) has called that scheme a “safe, effective and world-leading service” and warned of “disastrous” consequences for women if it was axed in September.
“If at the end of this six-month period the government were indeed to revoke legal permission for this service it would be a shameful betrayal of women and a decision devoid of both evidence or justice,” said Clare Murphy, the BPAS chief executive.
Ending telemedical abortion care “would force vulnerable women in the most difficult if circumstances, who cannot access in-clinic treatment, to resort to illegal methods again and face criminal sanctions as a result” for buying pills illegally online, added Murphy. Procuring an abortion or helping someone have one remains a criminal offence despite the Abortion Act 1967.
Requests from women in the UK to buy pills online has fallen by 88% since the scheme began in 2020, research shows.
Dr Zoe Greaves, the chair of the BMA’s medical ethics committee, said the decision “puts the wellbeing and safety of women at risk. Those most affected by this change will be those who are at greatest risk of harm, including women who are victims of sexual violence or domestic abuse and the financially vulnerable.
“It is a decision which puts politics before women’s health.”
Robert Winston, the fertility pioneer, has urged ministers to continue with the scheme, saying home abortions are safe and make it easier for women to have an early termination.
Throup said the decision to scrap the scheme in September would be kept under review. But sources at the Department of Health and Social Care indicated they would resist pressure to make the pills-at-home scheme permanent.
The Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, an anti-choice group, said that letting women receive abortion drugs without an in-person consultation was “reckless and deadly”.
The future of the scheme has reportedly led to disagreements involving ministers and civil servants. Lord Kamall, the technology minister, recently called it “this difficult decision”.
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