Women in UK almost resorted to dangerous measures for abortions before telemedicine

MPs set to vote on whether to make telemedicine abortion services permanent

Maya Oppenheim
Women’s Correspondent
Tuesday 29 March 2022 18:15 BST
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<p>After Covid hit the UK in March 2020, ministers allowed abortion pills to be sent via post to be taken at home after a phone consultation in a new system dubbed ‘telemedicine’ </p>

After Covid hit the UK in March 2020, ministers allowed abortion pills to be sent via post to be taken at home after a phone consultation in a new system dubbed ‘telemedicine’

Women in the UK contemplated dangerous measures to terminate pregnancies before the government introduced measures to allow at home early medical abortions.

After Covid hit the UK in March 2020, ministers allowed abortion pills to be sent via post to be taken at home after a phone consultation, in a new system dubbed “telemedicine”.

The new abortion measures were due to run out on 25 March but the government declared a six-month extension for at home early medical abortions earlier in the month. This means women who order abortion medication to take at home after the extension ends will be breaking the law and can face criminal penalties.

MPs are set to vote on whether to make telemedicine abortion services permanent in the House of Commons on Wednesday.

Women on Web, which provides abortions worldwide, has predicted a “surge” in women seeking abortion pills on the internet if the government chooses to revoke telemedicine for abortion.

The service notes thousands of women contacted online services for help before Covid hit due to being “unable to access in-clinic” and “risking prosecution in the process”.

The abortion provider released anonymous requests of 100 women in the UK they received in a six week period in 2019 before the UK government allowed at home early medical abortions in the wake of the pandemic.

Pregnant women were contemplating self-inflicted abdominal injury, taking scolding hot baths, using hooks on themselves, as well as taking high dose cinnamon, vitamin C, papaya and alcohol, if they were not able to get abortion pills online.

Women on Web, the international provider of abortion medication to women in countries with limited access, noted before telemedicine was rolled out they had five requests every day from women in the UK who were unable to access healthcare so required their support.

These requests included women who lived far away from abortion clinics and were dependent on using public transport, women with disabilities, as well domestic abuse victims hiding their pregnancy from a partner, and women concealing their pregnancy from coercive relatives.

Women on Web, which links women up with doctors who can distribute abortion pills in countries where pregnancy terminations are illegal, noted their requests for help disappeared as soon as telemedicine for abortion was rolled out in the UK.

One woman who sought their help said: “I can't go to an abortion clinic as I wouldn't be able to get there without my partner finding out. He's very abusive to me. If he ever found out I was pregnant I wouldn't be able to get away.”

While another said: “Services offered are too far away for me to be able to travel and there is a 2.5-week wait. Being pregnant has made me ill in myself and is impacting my mental health as the pregnancy was the result of an non-consensual encounter. I am now not with my partner and not living in good conditions and find myself in this situation without support.”

One woman added: “I have two children already and I’m on my own with them. I can not afford childcare so I could go to a clinic and my family are hugely against abortion so that is a big no no. I do not know what else I can do. I am desperate.

“I have no one to turn to, this baby was not made out of love and I already suffer with depression for various reasons. I’m trying to get myself better for my babies.”

Having a medical abortion involves taking two tablets. Prior to the pandemic, getting the first tablet, mifepristone, required a visit to an abortion clinic. Telemedicine for abortion has been permitted in Wales, France, America and New Zealand.

The vote in the Commons on Wednesday comes after Baroness Sugg, a Conservative peer, proposed a new amendment to the government’s Health and Care Bill, to ensure at home early medical abortions do not stop in September and are rolled out permanently. Her amendment passed in the House of Lords earlier in the month.

Dr Kate Guthrie, of Women on Web, said: “Great Britain should be proud of the way it launched this service at the start of the pandemic. Requests for our help vanished almost overnight, and that’s how it must remain.

“There are so many reasons why women cannot access in-clinic care, as evidenced by the stories we have published today, and we urge MPs to ensure no woman in England ever has to turn to us again.”

The UK’s largest study into abortions previously found at home early medical abortions pose no greater risk and allow women to have the procedure much earlier on in their pregnancy.

Clare Murphy, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the UK’s largest abortion provider, said: “Before the pandemic, we spoke every day to women who faced insurmountable barriers to accessing our help in a clinic, and we were powerless to help them.

“We have shown we can help these women – and it would be an absolute travesty if that service was withdrawn and women forced again to turn to organisations like Women on Web to meet their reproductive healthcare needs. This service is safe, accessible and effective – women deserve nothing less.”

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