'Pills by post' abortion introduced at start of Covid pandemic could be axed by autumn, report says

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Home abortions will be axed by the end of summer, despite health unions warning that getting rid of the ‘pills by post’ scheme would be ‘devastating’. 

When the Covid pandemic began, women seeking to terminate their pregnancy in the first 10 weeks were able to take pills at home — removing the need for them to see a clinician in person. 

Ministers revealed today the scheme will expire at midnight on August 29. 

England will then revert to pre-pandemic rules, which require women to take the first abortion pill in a clinic or hospital. They can take the second at home. 

Announcing the move today, health minister Maggie Throup said it would ensure the ‘wellbeing’ and ‘safety’ of women.

Pro-life charities raised concerns that the scheme was allowing some women to be coerced into having an abortion and that the pills were being used beyond the ten-week limit. 

But medical unions want ministers to make the ‘essential change’ to abortion rules permanent, saying it had slashed waiting times and allowed for earlier terminations which are safer.

They warned removing at home access to the pills, used by 2,000 women a week, would show a ‘deep mistrust’ of the public. 

The method, relating to termination in the first ten weeks of pregnancy, is thought to be used by around 2,000 women a week (file photo)

The method, relating to termination in the first ten weeks of pregnancy, is thought to be used by around 2,000 women a week (file photo)

Medical abortion — which can only be carried out up to 24 weeks of pregnancy — involves taking two different medicines. They are different to the ‘morning after’ pill.

Under pre-pandemic rules, women took the first pill to terminate a pregnancy at an abortion clinic or hospital under supervision from a clinician.

They were then able to take the second at home up to 48 hours later.

When the virus struck, however, ministers shifted to allowing both pills to be taken at home following a teleconsultation to ensure women still had access to the service.

WHAT HAS CHANGED IN ABORTION RULES THIS YEAR?

Home abortions were approved at the end of March 2020 by then Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

The new rules allowed women within the first ten weeks of pregnancy to take the first pill at home following a teleconsultation with a clinician.

This was applied in England, Scotland and Wales, but not in Northern Ireland which only started permitting abortions from 2020.

But today the Government announced the rule would be ending in August, with women again required to go to clinics to get their first abortion pill.

Health minister Maggie Throup said the move would ensure the ‘wellbeing and safety’ of women.

Last night medical unions called for the change to be made permanent, saying it had sped up abortions and meant more could occur earlier which was safer.

But some charities welcomed the end of the rule, saying it would ensure abortions were not taking place under duress or beyond the legal limit of 10 weeks with pills. 

But announcing this would be reversed by the end of August, Ms Throup said today: ‘After careful consideration, the Government’s view is that the provision of early medical abortion should return to pre-Covid arrangements. 

‘The wellbeing and safety of women requiring access to abortion services has been, and will continue to be, our first and foremost priority.’

She added: ‘Thanks to the success and impact of the national vaccination and booster programme, we are in a very different position compared to the beginning of the pandemic.

‘A short-term extension of the temporary approval will be made to enable a safe and reliable return to pre-pandemic arrangements and continued access to services.’

More than 30 medical groups had called for home abortions to be made permanent.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Midwives and the British Medical Association, and others expressed their ‘deep and urgent concern’ in a letter to Boris Johnson yesterday.

They said scrapping the legislation would force women to turn to unregulated abortion pill providers.

They added the telemedicine system has created a more equitable and quick service, which is ‘just as safe’ and a ‘more efficient’ use of NHS resources. 

The letter said: ‘To remove this service, despite the scientific and medical support it carries, would indicate a deep mistrust of women and an institutional disregard for their reproductive rights.’

Ministers have taken a different view, however, with a Whitehall source telling the Daily Telegraph yesterday: ‘As we move away from the measures we took to get through Covid, it’s right that we make a safe return to the policy that was in place pre-pandemic.’

Anti-abortion charity Right to Life welcome the move today, saying it would ensure ‘no more women are put at risk by the temporary provision’.

A spokeswoman said: ‘By removing a routine in-person consultation that allows medical practitioners to certify gestation and recognise potential coercion or abuse, ‘at-home’ abortion has presented serious risks to women and girls in abusive situations.

‘It has allowed severe complications to occur, as well as abortions beyond the legal limit.

‘Abortion providers currently cannot ensure the pills are taken by the intended individual within the appropriate time frame.’ 

More than 125,000 women have accessed pills by post so far since rules were relaxed in April 2020. 

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: ‘The current temporary measures were brought in at the start of the pandemic to allow eligible women to take both pills for early medical abortion – which goes up to 10 weeks of gestation – at home. We keep these provisions under review.’ 

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