Department of Health questioned over DIY abortion

15 July 2020

Communications Officer Rebekah Moffett comments on questions raised by Baroness Stroud on the government’s DIY abortion policy.

Since the announcement of our legal challenge to the government’s policy of allowing DIY at-home abortions, we have helped to uncover how the abortion industry has been at work within the Department of Health, able to get its way without proper scrutiny. MPs have since been questioning the government about the policy, and now questions are being asked in the House of Lords as politicians begin to realise the extent of the problem.

How many pills have been distributed?

On 9 July, Conservative peer Baroness Stroud asked a number of questions of the Department of Health and Social Care. She began by questioning the government department whether they knew how many DIY abortions had taken place since the policy came into effect:

“To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many sets of pills for early medical abortions at home have been distributed; and what assessment they have made of the number of early medical abortions that have been carried out at home.”

Health Minister Lord Bethell answered:

“Abortion data is published annually and data for 2020 is not due to be published until 2021. The data requires full quality assurance prior to release. The Code of Practice outlined in the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 prohibits the pre-release of official statistics before the due date of publication.”

In short, the government doesn’t know how many abortions have taken place under the new scheme. Before it came about, the abortion industry estimated that during the first 13 weeks of lockdown, some 44,000 women would ‘need’ access to home abortion. That’s over 3,300 abortions every week; over 670 abortions every working day. After two months of the scheme, abortion provider BPAS said it had administered pills to over 8,000 women. Recently-released official statistics for 2019 show that abortions in England and Wales reached a new high, with 209,519 taking place.

Illegal home abortions

Baroness Stroud also asked the government what it was doing to investigate the illegal admission of abortion pills to women over the 10 week limit:

“To ask Her Majesty’s Government what investigation they have made, if any, of reports of misadministration of the abortion drugs mifepristone and misoprostol from a telemedicine appointment during the COVID-19 pandemic leading to the death of an unborn child at 28 weeks; and how many other cases of such misadministration they are aware of.”

Lord Bethell responded:

“Public safety and continued access to key services is our priority during this difficult period. We are monitoring the impact of the temporary approval to approve women’s homes as a class of place where both sets of medication for early medical abortion can be taken. We are aware that a small number of incidents have been identified which the Department is looking into working alongside the Care Quality Commission and others.”

In truth, we have no way of knowing how many times illegal home abortions have taken place since the policy was introduced, however it is likely more than ‘a small number’. In May, an investigation into the stillbirth of a child born at 28 weeks was announced after BPAS sent the mother abortion pills through the post – four weeks after the legal limit for medical terminations, and 18 weeks past the 10-week restriction on DIY abortions.

Since then, our ‘mystery client’ investigation into DIY home abortions has uncovered abortion providers BPAS and Marie Stopes breaking the law, administering pills to every single mystery client and rushing each one through the process. One woman even gave a date on the cusp of the 9 week 6 day limit, which would have put her over the legal limit at the start of the process. She was still sent the ‘treatment pack’ without further questions. How many more pills have been administered by abortion providers under these circumstances?

Ironically, it was Lord Bethell who first raised the question of women’s homes being a suitable place for an abortion to take place. When the government initially rejected the policy, he stated to the House of Lords that:

“… we do not agree that women should be able to take both treatments for medical abortion at home. We believe that it is an essential safeguard that a woman attends a clinic to ensure that she has an opportunity to be seen alone and to ensure that there are no issues.

“Do we really want to support an amendment that could remove the only opportunity many women have, often at a most vulnerable stage, to speak confidentially and one-to-one with a doctor about their concerns on abortion and about what the alternatives might be? The bottom line is that, if there is an abusive relationship and no legal requirement for a doctor’s involvement, it is far more likely that a vulnerable woman could be pressured into having an abortion by an abusive partner.”

A statement from Dr Gregory Gardner shows how DIY abortions do put women’s physical and mental health at risk by failing to safeguard vulnerable women. He writes:

“It will be difficult if not impossible to verify by phone or video whether a woman is undergoing any kind of duress to have an abortion. There does not seem to have been any consideration given to this in the proposed change in policy. There will be women who need delicate counselling to discover coercion or other forms of abuse.” 

In fact, last week in the House of Commons, MPs revealed their concern that DIY abortions were leading to an increased risk of coercion, where women in abusive relationships were more likely to be forced into getting an abortion. Several called on the government to do more to provide counselling to vulnerable women.

Lord Bethell now appears to be backtracking on his initial concerns, minimising the seriousness of safeguarding issues and the protection of vulnerable women. If he is really concerned about vulnerable women, then what is he doing to ensure this ‘temporary’ measure isn’t causing the issues with safeguarding that he first raised in Parliament? If public safety really is the priority, then what is the government doing to stop more illegal abortions from taking place? Our ‘mystery client’ investigation would suggest the DIY abortion policy is far too easy to take advantage of – what will the government do to address that?

Women’s mental health at risk

Baroness Stroud also wrote to the Department of Health and Social Care:

“To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made, if any, of the impact on the mental health of women performing an early medical abortion on their own at home during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.”

Lord Bethell answered:

“The Department is carefully monitoring the impact of and compliance with the temporary approval of home administration of both sets of abortion medication during the COVID-19 pandemic. Officials have regular meetings with the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Care Quality Commission and abortion service providers to discuss the impact and any issues arising.

“The Department’s Required Standard Operating Procedures for independent sector providers set out that ‘Women are not required to have compulsory counselling or compulsory time for reflection before the abortion. Clinicians caring for women requesting abortion should be able to identify those who require more support than can be provided in the routine abortion service setting, for example young women, those with a pre-existing mental health condition, those who are subject to sexual violence or poor social support, or where there is evidence of coercion. For the minority of women who require formal, therapeutic counselling, services should have referral pathways in place with access to trained counsellors with appropriate expertise.’”

The issue is that with home abortions, only a short telephone or video consultation takes place before the pills are sent out. Kevin Duffy, a former director at Marie Stopes International, previously provided an expert witness statement explaining how the advice given to the government by abortion providers is misleading. Without a proper consultation at the clinic, there is no way to guarantee that a woman doesn’t have mental health issues, isn’t lying about her pregnancy or isn’t being coerced into having an abortion (as our mystery client investigation also shows).

Reviewing the ‘temporary’ policy

Finally, Baroness Stroud also questioned the government on when and how the government was reviewing the policy:

“To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to remarks by Lord Bethell on 15 June (HL Deb, col 2028), when these reviews took place; what opportunities there were for external input into these reviews; and what conclusions they reached regarding the need to maintain the approval of women’s homes as a class of place where pills can be taken for early medical abortion.”

Lord Bethell answered:

“The Department is carefully monitoring the impact of and compliance with the temporary approval of home administration of both sets of abortion medication during the COVID-19 pandemic. Officials have regular meetings with the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Care Quality Commission and abortion service providers to discuss the impact and any issues arising. The Department is keeping under review when the temporary approval will be removed.”

The issue here is that abortion providers are also the very people who campaigned for DIY abortion in the first place, and are therefore unlikely to provide unbiased reviews of the policy. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) was recently found to be facilitating illegal abortion, even under the new scheme, providing measures to cover women who break the law and advocating for feticide.

Sadly, the government is unlikely to be reviewing the policy anytime soon. Last week, it announced that the ‘temporary’ policy would be extended until the conclusion of a public consultation. Victoria Atkins MP announced to the House of Commons:

“The Government consider that the right way forward is to undertake a public consultation on whether to make permanent the current covid-19 measure allowing for home use of early medical abortion pills up to 10 weeks’ gestation for all eligible women. … I can confirm that we will keep the current covid-19 measures in place until the public consultation concludes and a decision has been made.”

The need for this policy to be overturned is clear – many lives hang in the balance. Please pray that our legal challenge would be successful, and that the policy allowing DIY abortions will be overturned before any consultation can take place.

Find out more about DIY abortions
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