The government has undertaken an unprecedented double U-turn by announcing the most significant change to abortion law since 1967.
The announcement came during the evening of 30 March, despite the government stating just one week ago that there would be no change to the abortion law as part of its response to Covid-19.
The new measures will allow women to undertake abortions in their own homes without medical supervision. The decision comes without any prior public consultation, parliamentary scrutiny or debate.
An ‘administrative error’?
The government itself previously warned that the move would put thousands of vulnerable women at risk in an already highly vulnerable time.
Just hours before the national lockdown on 23 March, the Department for Health and Social Care had initially announced the extreme changes to the abortion law on Twitter. The formal legislation had been legally signed off by Mark Davies, Director of Population Health.
However, hours later the legislation was pulled, with the tenuous claim that there had been an ‘administrative error’.
The government web page that had originally hosted the new legislation instead held the following message:
“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.”
This was followed by a statement in Parliament from the Health Secretary, Matthew Hanckock, who categorically denied having any plans to change the law on abortion: “We have no proposals to change abortion law in our Covid-19 response.”
Health Minister rejected amendments
As the Coronavirus Bill was brought to the House of Lords on Wednesday 25 March, Health Minister Lord Bethell strongly rejected the proposed changes to the abortion law on behalf of the government, stating 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.”
He also made clear that it would be inappropriate to make this change without the proper parliamentary scrutiny:
“It is not right to rush through this type of change in a sensitive area such as abortion without adequate parliamentary scrutiny.”
He finally pointed out that:
“… where we have taken a huge amount of advice – we have worked with the scientific advice in the department – is in the fact that the changes being offered are a fundamental change to the way abortions are regulated and administered in this country. Those regulations and administration arrangements have been worked on for years and are subject to an enormous amount of consensus.”
Government goes against own warnings
Yet despite these clear warnings, the government has gone against its own warnings by officially announcing the biggest change to abortion law since the 1967 Abortion Act.
The new measures will see ‘DIY’ abortions performed on women by themselves in their homes without the need for a doctor or medical professional.
Before this proposal, abortions could only take place in hospitals or abortion clinics approved by the Secretary of State.
Under the new temporary policy, doctors will be able to prescribe mifepristone and misoprostol over the phone or video platforms such as Facetime or Skype. The legislation, as laid out, is set to expire at the end of a two year period, or as and when the temporary provisions of the Coronavirus Act 2020 expire.
44,000 abortions at home
The pro-abortion lobby claims that the measures are needed because some 44,000 women would be unable to access abortion services during the coronavirus crisis.
Andrea Williams, chief executive of Christian Concern, commented:
“Abortion has nothing to do with coronavirus, and abusing public trust to advance a different agenda undermines trust in the government and effectiveness of response to the epidemic. There are no proposals to our knowledge to use abortion clinics’ capacity or personnel to respond to coronavirus.
“At a time of national and global crisis, to be pushing through a back-door policy that will put thousands of women at risk is dangerous and chilling.
“This policy will not help the women involved and will only lead to further vulnerability and trauma.
“The idea that our medical profession is prepared to prescribe such powerful drugs, in effect on demand, without seeing the patient is disturbing.
“In a time when we are being constantly warned of the threat to lives as a result of Covid-19, this move is ironic in its flagrant disregard for life. These pills cost somewhere in the region of 15 pence but end a human life.
“It does not smack of a kind and compassionate society, but one that is expedient and does not recognise the value of human life or the vulnerability of a woman who finds herself in a difficult situation.
“Something has gone wrong at the heart of our democratic systems when such a policy is introduced without proper public scrutiny, especially when our NHS is and will be under such strain in the coming weeks and months. We call on the government to urgently repeal these changes.”
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