Abortion services will become overwhelmed if the government withdraws provision for women to have early medical abortions at home, leading healthcare providers have warned.
Former health secretary Matt Hancock changed the rules around abortion at the beginning of the Covid crisis to allow early medical abortion medication to be sent via post to be taken at home.
The government is currently choosing whether to continue or withdraw this provision in the wake of a public consultation carried out last year – with rules which allow this at-home care due to run out on 30 March.
Abortion providers have now written to the government to warn reversing the measures would result in appointment shortages and lengthier waiting times for abortions.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), the UK’s largest abortion provider, warned that if the current system is reverted back, the service would see a 43 per cent rise in abortions being carried out after 20 weeks of pregnancy and 190 fewer each week.
Abortion services are already grappling with unprecedented staff shortages due to Omicron. One service was hit with a 700 per cent rise in staff being off work due to coronavirus in the first week of January when compared to the same period last year.
Clare Murphy, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said: “We cannot be clearer – services will not cope if our ability to provide early abortion care for women at home is removed.
“Telemedical abortion care is safe, effective and preferred by many women. All NHS services are under huge strain as a result of the pandemic, and abortion care is no different – with unprecedented numbers of staff self-isolating or absent due to illness.
“Women will face significantly longer waits to treatment if their access to telemedical care is withdrawn by government and will need later procedures as a result.”
Ms Murphy noted although abortions are very safe procedures, the earlier pregnancy terminations can be given, the “better” it is for the “physical and mental health” of the woman.
She added: “The UK led the way in introducing telemedical abortion care at home at the start of the pandemic, and many countries – including the US – have followed suit. We should be proud of what we have been able to provide for women. It would be a travesty if it were withdrawn.”
Around half of all abortions are currently delivered via telemedicine – which is defined as the remote diagnosis and treatment of patients via phone or video call.
Having a medical abortion involves taking two tablets – with health professionals saying the pills have fewer adverse consequences than paracetamol. Prior to the pandemic, getting the first tablet, mifepristone, necessitated a visit to an abortion clinic.
Penning a letter to Maggie Throup, minister for public health, leading abortion providers said that “time is now running out to protect a healthcare service that protects the health and wellbeing of women” and warned of “disastrous” ramifications if telemedicine is removed.
“To deliberately force services to run in a manner which is less efficient, when there is no clinical or ethical reason to do so, it seems to us to be both indefensible and inexplicable,” the letter said.
The UK’s largest study into abortions previously found at home early medical abortions pose no greater risk and allow women to have the procedure much earlier on in their pregnancy.
Jonathan Lord, MSI Reproductive Choice’s UK medical director, said: “Removing the option of early medical abortion at home would make accessing abortion care far more difficult, particularly for those experiencing domestic abuse who are often unable to safely attend a clinic in person.
“Forcing them to do so would mean more unregulated pills purchased online, more women and pregnant people forced into unnecessary surgical procedures or even into continuing unwanted pregnancies. It would also make the service less resilient and less efficient, wasting NHS resources – and ultimately taxpayers’ money.”
Mr Lord argued it “makes no sense” to force abortion pills to be taken in a doctors surgery or hospital.
“It’s hard not to conclude that doing so would be a decision rooted, not in medicine, science, or compassion, but by a fundamental lack of trust in people, particularly women, to make their own reproductive choices,” he added.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.