Britain's biggest provider of abortions is seeking a legal ruling in the courts to allow women to have the procedure at home.
The High Court challenge, to be heard on 28 January, is being contested by the Department of Health after talks broke down between ministers and leaders of BPAS, formerly the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.
Ann Furedi, its chief executive, said it could no longer "sit back" on the issue after a decade of "ebbing and flowing of enthusiasm" within Government. The Department agrees it is safe for women to complete abortions at home, but the change would allow them to initiate the process at home by self administering the necessary drugs.
BPAS provides abortions to around 55,000 women each year. The legal ruling would apply only to early medical abortions, carried out within the first nine weeks of pregnancy using drugs alone. There were 69,000 such abortions carried out in the UK in 2009.
BPAS is seeking a reinterpretation of the 1967 Abortion Act, which stipulates that treatment for the termination of pregnancy must be carried out in a hospital or clinic.
This means that women wanting an early medical abortion must attend the clinic twice to receive tablets in two stages. On the first visit they are given one tablet to block the pregnancy hormones, and on the second visit, they are given a dose of tablets to provoke a miscarriage. The tablets must be administered in the clinic but most women then choose to go home and complete the process.
BPAS argues that women should be given both sets of tablets at the first visit with instructions on how to administer them. Ms Furedi said: "Women should have the choice how this is managed. Women are already effectively having their miscarriages at home. This can only be an improvement on the existing situation." Ms Furedi said that the real barrier was fears about how such a change would be perceived by the anti-abortion lobby.
A Department of Health spokesperson said "In the Government's view, [the wording of the 1967 Act] means that both tablets used for medical abortion must be administered on premises which have been approved under the Abortion Act. For this reason, the Government is contesting this case."Reuse content