Government taken to ECHR over DIY abortions

14 December 2021

Christian Concern has launched legal action to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) over the UK government’s decision to allow ‘DIY’ home abortions during the pandemic and how the measures were adopted.

Lawyers from the Christian Legal Centre argue that the government has ‘violated’ Articles 2 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights law by approving the telemedicine service which has repeatedly been exposed as unsafe and crossing legal boundaries.

Exceeding government powers

On 30 March 2020, after a double U-turn by now former health secretary Matt Hancock, the government allowed a woman’s home to become a place for unsupervised medical abortion. Lawyers argue that this approval, which happened without parliamentary scrutiny, exceeded government powers and undermined the legislative purpose of the Abortion Act 1967.

The relaxed rules, which the government said would be ‘temporary’, have allowed powerful abortion pills to be mailed to women who were, in theory, up to ten weeks pregnant after a telephone consultation, rather than having to go to a clinic.

Prior to this approval, it was necessary for a woman’s eligibility for early medical abortion at-home to be assessed professionally by an authorised service provider during a clinic visit; this assessment routinely included the use of an ultrasound scan to confirm the gestational age of the pregnancy as well as other safeguarding measures.

The approval placed the assessment for how many weeks a woman is pregnant solely on the woman’s accurate and honest recall of the first day of her last menstrual cycle and self-assessment of her medical history.

Illegal abortions

The reality of the approval, however, has been exposed by a mystery shopper investigation of the telemedicine service which found abortion providers sending out pills without safety checks to woman significantly over the 10 week pregnancy legal threshold.

Data released by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) has revealed multiple serious incidents, including four women being allowed by providers to have traumatic abortions more than 24 weeks into their pregnancies – 14 weeks beyond the legal limit for early medical abortion.

An NHS email leak revealed concerns from a senior midwife of the “escalating risks around the Pills by Post service,” which included reports of women dying following abortion.

Furthermore, Freedom of Information requests have revealed a surge in women having to call 999 following post-abortion complications. Data has also revealed over 10,000 cases of women needing treatment for retained products of conception since the service began.

A Savanta ComRes poll has shown 86% of GPs are concerned about the risk of women being coerced into having an abortion and the potential for having a medical abortion past the legal limit of ten weeks into gestation.

Christian Concern’s application to the ECHR also details the ‘intimate’ and ‘unfettered access’ abortion providers have to civil servants in the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC), allowing them to shape government policy.

It was found, for example, that civil servants such as Imogen Stephens, who played a key role in influencing ministers to approve the service in March 2020, and who provided a witness statement to the High Court to justify the government’s actions, worked concurrently with the DHSC and for abortion provider Marie Stopes UK.

Women’s stories

Women affected by the service have spoken of the devastating impact on their lives.

One woman, Kirsty, has said:

“I was rushed through process over the phone. It was all about where to send the pills to as I was close to being 10 weeks pregnant. I wanted a scan and to know whether the procedure would be safe. I thought I would have to go to hospital but was told I had to do it at home.

“I wish on the one call that I had that they would have been more compassionate and checked if I was sure I wanted to do it. I didn’t want to do it, but I was in a controlling and manipulative relationship.

“The home abortion is made to think you are doing it in the comfort of your own home. But instead, you have the memory of what you have done in your own home forever. My home is no longer my happy safe space, it is the place where I took away my child.”

Safety concerns

Since the service began, more than 200,000 pregnant women, like Kirsty, across England and Wales have self-managed their medical abortion at home.

Despite safety concerns repeatedly raised in parliament and pregnant women now having access ti clinical care, the service remains in place.

In February 2021, the government finished consulting on whether to make the DIY home abortion service permanent, but is yet to publish its findings.

Andrea Williams, chief executive of Christian Concern, said: “The evidence is clear that DIY abortions are not safe and many woman have had deeply traumatic and life-changing experiences. The process has clearly been abused and used unlawfully.

“We warned from the beginning that allowing DIY abortions on a ‘temporary basis’ would quickly be turned into a permanent measure. Now the government has made this intention clear.

“Abortion pills through the post is a system that needs to be stopped immediately and a thorough investigation needs to occur around the legality and practices of the two major abortion providers in the UK.”

Find out more about DIY abortions
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