Allow women to continue virtual abortion appointments, ministers urged

Women were granted temporary access to at-home abortion treatment at the start of the coronavirus pandemic

Kate Ng
Wednesday 03 November 2021 11:00
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A leading abortion provider has called on ministers to ensure women can continue to access abortion care at home, amid concerns voiced by health figures about the virtual consultations.

Data released by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) on Wednesday suggests there has been a surge in requests for abortion advice in the six months following the easing of lockdown restrictions.

The reproductive health charity said between March and September of this year, the number of calls it received rose by around a third, indicating that abortion services are “under considerable pressure”.

It also warned that during the pandemic, women experienced difficulties accessing contraception, with NHS data showing a 22 per cent fall in contraception-related contacts within the past year compared to the previous year.

Former health secretary Matt Hancock granted temporary permission for women to access early medical abortion treatment at home after a virtual consultation early in the pandemic, to avoid the spread of Covid-19.

According to BPAS, this allowed more than 100,000 women to access early medical abortion before 10 weeks of pregnancy. But the charity warned that increased need for abortion services has led to increased waiting times, and means that women may require later, surgical treatment as a result.

The data comes after several health figures called for the virtual consultations for patients seeking abortion medication to be stopped over concerns that some women could be coerced into having an abortion against their will.

Frank Dunn and David Galloway, both former presidents of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, were joined by two surgeons, a public health physician and two trainee GPs in calling for the service to be scrapped.

They also raised concerns that “routine prescription” of opioid painkillers and the risk of complications posed a potential danger to women.

In a letter to the Scottish government’s public health minister, Maree Todd, they wrote: “Every clinician has a duty of care towards their patient and we do not believe this duty is best fulfilled by removing in-person clinician-patient contact for significant medical procedures.”

But Clare Murphy, chief executive of BPAS, said: “Abortion is a safe and straightforward procedure, but the earlier it can be offered the better for women’s health and wellbeing.

“The current permission for telemedical abortion has enabled access to care at the earliest gestations, and has been particularly beneficial for women in some of the most complex circumstances.

“We are already struggling to meet women’s needs as requests for help have grown over the last six months.

“The need for second trimester surgical services has also increased and these appointments can be increasingly hard to find. It is heartbreaking to turn away women in some of the most challenging circumstances imaginable.

"We urge the secretary of state for Health and Social Care to ensure access to telemedical abortion remains an option for women, so we can continue to meet as many women’s needs as early as possible. Women’s health will suffer without it.”

A spokesperson for the Scottish government told The Times that many women were still being asked to attend appointments in person, and that the ministers are commissioning “an independent evaluation to assess the effectiveness of the current approach, including in relation to patient safety”.

She added: “The current arrangements will remain in place as long as the risks associated with the pandemic continue and ministers will consider the future arrangements once the evaluation has been completed.”

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