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Artillery Row

How the Government botched its new abortion policy

DIY abortions put women’s lives at risk and could increase the strain on the NHS

“Never waste the opportunity offered by a good crisis,” is a sentiment first attributed to the political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli and repeated by politicians ever since.

But the government has missed the chance to quietly make the biggest change in abortion provision since 1967. Instead, two U-turns have revealed their ability to be pressured from both sides of the debate and created a circle in the road so huge, self-isolating astronauts can now see the new policy from space.

Never a good start, the Department of Health made the change with a Tweet on 23 March, perhaps hoping people would think it was a sensible provision rather than a huge coup for abortion providers. New guidance was also published on the government’s website.

Women would now be allowed to take pills at home to induce abortions, instead of going through the usual procedures which involve talking to medical professionals and receiving counselling.

The now deleted tweet which the Department of Health claimed was sent in error

But after people started to notice, the government claimed it was a mistake and the tweet vanished.  The new guidance which had been on the government website for four hours was deleted. A Department of Health spokesperson told The Independent the same day: “This was published in error. There will be no changes to abortion regulations.”

The next day, Health Secretary Matt Hancock reassured the House of Commons that there were no proposals to change the abortion rules due to Coronavirus.

And in the Lords Health Minister, Lord Bethell said it was “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.”

And that it was “not right to rush through this type of change in a sensitive area such as abortion without adequate parliamentary scrutiny.”

But now, with a second screeching U-turn, the Government have bowed to the pro-abortion lobby and come full circle. The tweet has gone back out again, and the law has been amended.

The change will expire “on the day on which the temporary provisions of the Coronavirus Act 2020 expire, or the end of the period of 2 years beginning with the day on which it is made, whichever is earlier.” But it’s clear that the pro-abortion lobby who are celebrating the change will fight to make it permanent.

Abortion providers have celebrated the change

Previously abortions could only take place in hospitals or abortion clinics approved by the Secretary of State. Under the new policy, a single doctor will be able to prescribe abortion pills (mifepristone and misoprostol) over the phone or video chat and then women will perform their own abortion at home by taking both abortion pills, leaving them without direct medical supervision.

Bpas, the leading provider of abortion services in the UK, has been encouraging their supporters to lobby MPs to make the change and personally thanked the Health Secretary Matt Hancock on Twitter.

But there are huge risks to the new policy. As a doctor told me:

Lots of women use emergency services after taking abortion medication, most commonly with heavy bleeding and abdominal pain. Some will need medical intervention to remove stuck tissue, but for most they are just going through what these drugs were designed to do. These patients have had face to face counselling with experienced professionals and still seek reassurance. Taking shortcuts at the beginning of the procedure is likely to lead to a more traumatic experience for patients and their families, and to increase numbers of emergency consultations at a time when the health service is already very stretched.

During such a major crisis, the Department of Health cannot be expected to be operating at its peak, but it’s clear from the Ministerial statements and the sequence of events that a major policy decision has been made on the hoof, under pressure from abortion providers, and without any consideration of the consequences.

As the NHS cancels all non-essential services, questions should be raised as to how responsible is it for the Department of Health to change the law so that an already risky service can continue to be provided to people who are not ill. Nobody is going to die if abortion is not possible for the duration of the quarantine but many more might suffer as a result of such a major change in the law.

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