The government’s move to approve at-home abortion pills this weekend is a small win in a big battle. Let’s not claim a victory yet, says Stylist contributor Anna Brech
At the heart of all abortion debates lies the issue of trust.
Do we trust adult women to make clear-headed decisions over their own reproductive health?
Until this weekend, the answer to this question for women in England was a resounding “no”.
The 140,000 women who seek early medical abortions every year in this country weren’t trusted to take the abortion pill, known as misoprostol, at home.
This despite the fact that the very same medication is regularly prescribed for home use in cases of women who suffer miscarriages.
On Saturday, the government finally Tippexed this glaring double standard - the legacy of outdated 1960s laws - and approved home-use of the abortion pill for terminations carried out under 10 weeks gestation, to come into effect by the end of this year.
It’s a significant move but this is no time to crack out the gender rights bunting.
First, let’s consider the facts of the case.
England is already behind in approving home-based medical abortion in early pregnancy; it’s legal not only in Wales and Scotland, but also in countries as diverse as Vietnam, Sweden and the US (yes even the States, with its dubious record on reproductive rights).
Insisting that women attend a clinic to take second half of the abortion medication not only costs more, it also puts people through the pain and humiliation of potentially miscarrying on the way home, as the medication takes effect.
So, by green-lighting this legislation, our government is simply playing catch-up with other more enlightened countries and affording women the small courtesy of not miscarrying on public transport.
It’s hardly radical.
In fact, the Powers That Be would have to pretty brash *not* to approve the move, especially in the face of advice from the World Health Organisation (which clearly states at-home medical abortion is safe and effective), and a group of leading UK gynaecologists.
Second, and more acutely, is the question of women in Northern Ireland, who’ve once again been left out in the cold.
Despite the landslide victory to repeal the eighth amendment and legalise abortion in Ireland earlier this year, the country’s female neighbours over the border still cannot access a termination even in the case fatal foetal abnormalities, rape and/or incest.
With Theresa May’s government propped up by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which opposes abortion reform, the pressure falls on our prime minister to urge a change in law as part of her “confidence and supply” agreement with the party.
May raised campaigners’ hope in June when she backed women’s right to choose in her first public comments on the matter.
But she also backed the stance of DUP leader Arlene Foster that abortion is a “devolved matter”, meaning it should not be decided on by Westminster politicians.
This latest development to approve home use of medical abortion pills has thrown the debate back into the spotlight, with many urging May to take action on the issue:
A great victory for campaigners to end abortion rules that distrusted women. @theresa_may must now ensure women in Northern Ireland, the only part of the UK where women have no reproductive rights at all, also have access to legal and safe abortions. https://t.co/THQsRyBGqi— Sophie Walker (@SophieRunning) August 25, 2018
Welcome news women in England will soon be able to take one abortion pill at home. Meanwhile in NI, under near total abortion ban, women are forced online to purchase abortion pills, risking prosecution in doing so. Ongoing failure of UK Gov to act is a cruel betrayal of women. pic.twitter.com/Gd59IMqnbv— Grainne Teggart (@GTeggart) August 25, 2018
gap between how we treat women in England, Wales and Scotland and how we treat women in Northern Ireland just got bigger as govt does u turn on allowing access to abortion pill at home - don’t let NI women be left behind. Ask your MP to say it’s #nowforNI https://t.co/KceFFJ23OL— stellacreasy (@stellacreasy) August 24, 2018
For too long, women’s reproductive rights have been caught up in a narrative of political cowardice.
The government’s decision to allow women to take medical abortion pills at home is a welcome move, if rather overdue.
As Professor Lesley Regan, President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, says, it will “allow women to avoid distress and embarrassment”, offering us “more choice” and “compassionate care”.
But as ever, our fight to retain control over our own bodies cannot become complacent. The government needs to rally, and find within itself a moral voice for something that is bigger than politics.
Until women right on our doorstep are afforded the same simple dignities as we are, the fight is far from won.