UK government retracts rule change on chemical abortions

British members of parliament questioned Health Secretary Matt Hancock in the House of Commons on Wednesday over a withdrawn change to the UK’s abortion laws. The change would have allowed women to complete a so-called medical abortion at home without going to a hospital or clinic first.

Hancock reiterated that the government has no plans to change abortion regulations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has issued lockdown orders for the UK with strict social distancing measures enforced. 

Hours after they were published online, the U.K.’s Department for Health on March 24 retracted changes to the country’s abortion laws that would have allowed women to complete a chemical abortion at home, without going to a hospital or clinic first.

“It’s absurd to expect women to be able to travel during lockdown for a vital healthcare procedure that could be done at home. That risks thousands of women being forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy because they cannot access medical services,” Stella Creasy, a Labour MP, said Wednesday. 

A medical abortion, sometimes called a chemical abortion, is a two-step process that involves the ingestion of two drugs: mifepristone and misoprostol. The first drug, mifepristone, effectively starves the unborn baby by blocking the effects of the progesterone hormone, inducing a miscarriage. The second drug, misoprostol, is taken up to two days later and induces labour.

Women in the UK are already allowed to take the second drug at home, after taking the first at a medical clinic and after obtaining the approval of two doctors, as required by law. 

The retracted changes would have allowed women to take both pills at home after consulting with a doctor via video link or by phone. The change would have applied nationwide but only had a practical effect in England. Home administering of chemical abortions is already permitted under Scottish and Welsh law, The Week reports

The government’s initial guidance followed a March 23 letter from several UK medical groups, including the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (RCOG), urging the Health Secretary to allow women to seek approval to self-administer the abortion pill via telemedicine.

“This was published in error. There will be no changes to abortion regulations,” a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson told The Independent, five hours after the purported changes appeared on the UK government’s official website.

The Mayo Clinic lists potential risks of medical abortion as including incomplete abortion, heavy and prolonged bleeding, infection, and fever, among other potential complications.

Pro-abortion groups on Wednesday reiterated their support for telemedicine abortions. 

“This would have reduced pressure on an already overwhelmed health system, limited risk of coronavirus infection for women, their families and healthcare professionals, while ensuring safe and timely access to abortion care,” a Wednesday joint statement from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (RCOG) and the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) reads. 

“Inaction is reckless and risks the health and wellbeing of women and frontline [National Health Service] workers.”

The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children UK, a pro-life group, launched a national and international campaign calling for abortions to be halted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This radical and most disturbing policy would…have placed more women at risk,” John Smeaton, Chief Executive of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children UK, said Tuesday. “The removal of any direct medical supervision overseeing the use of both abortion pills could have seen a rise of physical and physiological complications experienced by women.”