UK rescinds guidance legalizing at-home abortions during coronavirus outbreak

NHS in London, England. | Reuters/Toby Melville

The United Kingdom government has rescinded guidance temporarily allowing in-home medical abortions during the coronavirus outbreak.

On Monday, the Department of Health and Social Care published online guidance explaining that the government “has approved two temporary measures in England to limit the transmission of coronavirus (COVID-19) and ensure continued access to early medical abortion services.”

The guidance would have allowed women to take both pills required for medical abortion — mifepristone and misoprostol — in their own homes without having to go to a hospital or clinic first. It would have also given doctors the ability to prescribe patients abortion pills from their homes. 

The guidance came amid pressure from abortion rights groups ahead of Prime Minister Borris Johnson’s announcement of a national lockdown enforced by police on Monday.

But about five hours after it was posted on Monday night, the guidance was removed from 

A DHSC spokesperson admitted that it was “published in error.”

“There will be no changes to abortion regulations,” the spokesperson was quoted as saying by BBC

The spokesperson did not provide any explanation of how the error occurred. 

John Smeaton, president of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said in a statement that he had called the society’s lawyers Monday night to ask them to “initiate immediate legal action” to overturn what he called an “ideology-driven change to Britain’s abortion laws.”

Smeaton argued that it is “disturbing and extraordinary that such an error could be made.”

“Thank God that such a dangerous move — for unborn children and their mothers — is not, after all, being enacted by the Government,” Smeaton said. “We warmly welcome the Government’s corrected announcement. However, we will be keeping SPUC’s lawyers on stand-by.”

According to Right to Life UK, the rescinded guidance would have been the “biggest change to [the U.K.] abortion provision since 1967” because it essentially would have allowed “DIY abortions” to be performed on women without a doctor present. 

The pro-life organization pointed out that such a change would have happened “without any public consultation, Parliamentary scrutiny or debate.” Under current law, abortions can only take place in hospitals or clinical settings approved by the secretary of state. 

The reversal was decried by advocates for increased abortion access, such as Clare Murphy of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service. She told BBC that the decision to reverse the guidance “made no sense.”

BPAS joined 12 other institutions such as the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in signing a letter to Health Secretary Matt Hancock on Monday, according to The Standard

The groups pushed for changes to the country’s abortion law to increase access at a time when doctors are self-isolating and the National Health Service is under immense pressure. 

“It simply makes no sense at all that as the prime minister was ordering people to stay in their homes last night, the Department of Health was overturning a decision that would have enabled tens of thousands of women to access early abortion care lawfully at home, protecting their own health, that of their families, and that of the doctors, nurses and midwives who care for them,” Murphy told The Guardian.

Murphy said her organization is being contacted by women who are in “desperate circumstances” and are wondering what they should do. 

“We urge the government to reinstate this safe and sensible policy as well as amend the law to enable one healthcare professional to authorize an abortion,” Murphy stressed. 

Right to Life UK spokesperson Catherine Robinson said in a statement that the policy would have placed “women at risk” and could have resulted in the increase of medical abortion complications. She argued the guidance would put more strain on the country’s health system.  

“We welcome the news that this extreme change to the law is not going ahead and that the announcement was an administrative error,” Robinson said. “The Department of Health and Social Care is working tirelessly at the moment so it is understandable that human errors like this are made.”

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

or Facebook: SamuelSmithCP

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