British women are for the first time to be offered drug-induced abortions at home under plans drawn up by a leading family planning organisation.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service, which is responsible for 50,000 abortions a year, says that home abortions will make the procedure quicker and easier for women.

It is asking the Department of Health for the go-ahead for a pilot study of 500 home abortions. Its newly appointed chief executive, Ann Furedi, says that it will enable the charity to offer more terminations to more women, as well as enable them to be done sooner. She wants abortion to be seen as a back-up to fertility control that should be available on demand.

Home abortions would mimic the medical abortions that BPAS currently offers. Like them, they would only be appropriate for women who are up to nine weeks pregnant. A medical abortion involves four visits to a hospital or clinic. A woman sees a doctor, returns to take an oral drug, then returns once more to take a vaginal pessary, and on the fourth occasion receives a check-up.

BPAS wants to offer a treatment that cuts out attendance at the clinic, enabling women to be at home when they use the pessaries - the crucial stage leading to the expulsion of the embryo.

At this early stage of pregnancy, the fertilised ovum is an embryo, while by nine weeks the developing baby is described as a foetus, and looks like a miniature version of a baby.

"It would be like having a drug-induced miscarriage" said Ms Furedi. "It would be painful. There would be cramps, other pain and a lot of blood, for about half an hour." Disposal of the remains, she said, would be via the lavatory. "The woman would be sitting on the loo. Many women would far rather be in their own bathroom than the loo in the clinic or the hospital, which is what usually happens," explained Ms Furedi.

"We want to respond to what women want. If we reduce the amount of time people are in the clinic, then it is possible for us to see more women. A lot of women do prefer a medical abortion because it is less invasive than surgical procedure. It is like an early miscarriage."

Under the terms of the Abortion Act, terminations have to be carried out by a doctor and performed in a hospital or a "class of place" approved under the Abortion Act. The Department of Health said that it has not yet approved the pilot study. "No 'class of place' will be approved unless we are content that a woman's safety is not at risk," said a spokesman.

The number of abortions carried out in Britain has soared in the past 35 years since the passing of the Abortion Act. In 1968 there were 23,000; in 2001, there were 186,000, of which 43 per cent were carried out before nine weeks, and 45 per cent between nine and 12 weeks. The vast majority - 92 per cent - were carried out on the grounds that pregnancy would harm the physical or mental health of the mother.

Ms Furedi said that the abortion law was being interpreted liberally, and that the time had come to be more honest about it. "If the law was interpreted strictly it would be unworkable. But no woman should have a child against her will."

The pro-life organisation Life said that it feared the impact on women's health of the new home abortions.

BPAS says women undergoing home abortions can contact doctors by phone 24 hours a day, but Life says this is unsatisfactory. Katherine Hampton, of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said: "This will be very painful and women should not be left alone without back-up fully available. There must surely be a grave risk to a woman if her abortion was incomplete."

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