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Women in England will be able to take abortion pills at home during the coronavirus outbreak

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Lauren Geall
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The Department of Health and Social Care has confirmed they will be updating guidance to ensure women in England are able to access safe at-home abortions during the coronavirus crisis.

Women in England will be able to take abortion pills at home during the coronavirus outbreak, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson has confirmed.

Last week the government published legislation which said that abortion pills would be available at home, before declaring that the update had been published in error and withdrawing the announcement.

Now, following a report in The Sunday Times which suggested that the government was planning to make a U-turn on this withdrawal, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care has said that they are updating their guidance to ensure women have access to essential abortion services during the crisis.

“Public safety and continued access to key services is our priority during this difficult period,” the statement reads.

“We are updating our guidance so women who need an abortion up to ten weeks and can’t access a clinic can use abortion pills at home.

“This measure will be on a temporary basis and must follow a telephone or e-consultation with a doctor. We will set out the next steps, including updated guidance, shortly.”

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The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (Bpas), which has been campaigning for the government to provide adequate abortion access during the coronavirus outbreak, welcomed the news, but pushed for greater clarity to prevent further delays.

“We welcome the report that the government is preparing to reinstate telemedicine for early abortion care but we need clarity as this service must be made available to women as soon as possible,” said Dr Patricia Lohr, medical director at Bpas.

“Many women with unwanted pregnancies are currently unable to leave their homes or are having to travel across the country to access care as services buckle, putting themselves and those they come into contact with at needless risk.”

Lohr added that she was “extremely grateful to the dozens of leaders in public health who made their voices heard on this crucial issue in women’s health at a time of national crisis”.

“Every day of delay forces hundreds of women from their homes, including those with underlying health conditions… Women need help and they need it now.”

The updated guidance from the Department of Health and Social Care is being made on a temporary basis only, and will last for two years or until the crisis is over (on the same timetable as other emergency legislation). 

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Abortion charity Marie Stopes UK also welcomed the news, praising the government for listening to the “health experts, campaigners and journalists alike” who pushed for the change. 

“The government’s decision to allow women in England to take both sets of early medical abortion pills at home during the COVID-19 crisis, shows that they value both women’s health and that of hardworking abortion care staff, who have continued to deliver essential healthcare, despite a global health pandemic,” said Jonathan Lord, medical director for Marie Stopes UK. “We now stand in full solidarity with women and girls in Northern Ireland seeking the same protection.

“By listening to expert clinical advice, the government has ensured that the next round of #ClapforCarers will be from the 200,000 women who need to access safe abortion services each year.”

In Scotland and Wales, women can already take abortion pills at home. However, it remains unclear how women in Northern Ireland – where abortion was officially decriminalised at the end of October 2019 – are supposed to access safe abortion care during the coronavirus outbreak. 

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The Department of Health was due to introduce abortion services in Northern Ireland by 1 April, meaning that terminations can take place up to 12 weeks of pregnancy under any circumstances. Abortion will also be legal beyond 12 weeks in Northern Ireland in cases of severe foetal impairment or abnormality, or if continuing with a pregnancy would endanger a woman’s life or mental or physical health.

Yet new regulations for abortion in Northern Ireland, published by the government on 25 March, failed to make clear how pregnant women and girls are meant to access abortion care during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Northern Irish abortion rights campaign Alliance for Choice has launched a petition calling on Northern Ireland’s health minister Robin Swann to allow women there to take abortion telemedicine at home until services are able to run as normal.

“We are deeply concerned that no consideration has been given to the impact on Covid-19 on both travel and the availability of abortion appointments as services shut down,” said Naomi Connor, Alliance for Choice’s co-convener.

“We should not place women and pregnant people at risk of unsafe abortion when there is a scientific, safe and readily available alternative.”

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