‘Pills by post’ abortions to become permanent option in England and Wales under new law

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Women in England and Wales will have permanent access to early medical abortions from home from next week after the method was trialled during the pandemic.

‘Pills by post’ abortions which can be used to terminate a pregnancy in the first 10 weeks were brought in early 2020 when regular abortion services closed.

The move will allow thousands of women to end their pregnancy from the privacy of their own home rather than travel to a clinic or hospital. 

Women will always be able to secure early medical abortion pills via a phone call or online consultation with a doctor at home.

Ministers originally wanted to axe the scheme this summer, but they were defeated by a vote by MPs in March.

The Department of Health and Social Care said doctors will be required to certify in ‘good faith’ that the pills are only being used to terminate early pregnancies. 

The decision follows a record number of terminations being carried out last year in England Wales.

Temporary measures introduced to allow the use of at-home pills for early medical abortion during the pandemic will be made permanent (stock image)

Temporary measures introduced to allow the use of at-home pills for early medical abortion during the pandemic will be made permanent (stock image)

Nearly 215,000 abortions were carried out in the two nations in 2021, according to Government data, up 2 per cent on the year before.

More than half were carried out at home via the pills by post service, according to the report from the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities.

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 in February, 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.

However, rebel MPs voted down the plan to scrap the scheme in March.

After an emotional debate, 215 MPs voted to amend the Health and Care Bill to keep the service in place. 

These included 72 Conservatives such as Cabinet ministers Grant Shapps and Brandon Lewis and former PM Theresa May.

Conservative MP Laura Trott said that keeping the service was ‘a matter for human dignity, for women’s dignity’.

Announcing the move today, Minister for Public Health Maggie Throup said: ‘The wellbeing and safety of women requiring access to abortion services is paramount.

‘With these measures women will have more choice in how and where they access abortion services, while ensuring robust data is collected to ensure their continued safety.’ 

Doctors will also be required to record information about the place of consultation and the place of termination.

The Government said this data will allow of analysis of trends in at-home abortions to better understand the use of remote services. 

Guidance for providing the abortion pills to under-18s will be published by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health soon, the Government said.

This will ensure that children who do need to access abortions services can, but that safeguarding measures are in place in case of suspected abuse. 

The ‘pills by post’ consist of two medications, mifepristone and misoprostol, taken at least 24 hours apart. 

Women take mifepristone first with the pill blocking progesterone, a hormone needed to maintain the pregnancy, from working. 

The second, misoprostol, contains a hormone called prostaglandin which causes the uterus to contract, triggering the abortion. 

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

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

When the virus struck, however, ministers changed the rules to allowing both pills to be taken at home, following a teleconsultation, to ensure women could still access early abortions.

Office for Health Improvement and Disparities data shows 214,869 women had abortions in England and Wale in 2021, up 2 per cent on the more than 210,000 recorded in 2020

British women who are beyond nine weeks and six days pregnant can go for a surgical abortion on the NHS.

The general limit for these abortions in the UK is 24 weeks of pregnancy but they can be carried out after under very limited circumstances.

These include if the mother’s life would be put in danger by the pregnancy continuing or if a test has revealed the child has a severe disability.

Surgical abortions are a fraction of total abortions carried out in the UK, only accounting for 13 per cent of terminations last year.  

The number of abortions carried out in over-35s has been rising over the past decade. In 2011, 27,199 had a termination, compared to 40,789 in 2021. 

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