Last fall, the Human Rights Department had the pleasure of hosting speakers, Rachael Clarke from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (‘BPAS’), and Queen Mary’s Dr Ruth Fletcher. The event focused on outlining current legal strategies, challenges, and opportunities to support the reproductive health and rights of women and girls living across various jurisdictions. The discussion that unfolded largely highlighted the impact that Covid-19 has had on women’s access to abortion.
Every year 68,000 women die following unsafe abortion, and it is estimated that seven million are hospitalised for the treatment of serious complications such as bleeding or infection. We assumed that the pandemic was wreaking havoc on service provision, and that women seeking to abort pregnancies in the UK were in a more vulnerable position than ever before. To our surprise, we were mistaken. Rachael Clarke from BPAS informed our attendees that abortion access, by way of telemedicine, has been thriving.
As a result of Covid-19, in March 2020, the English, Scottish, and Welsh governments temporarily altered abortion regulations to permit women in the first ten weeks of pregnancy to obtain medications for an early medical abortion to take place at home. Upon registration and consultation with BPAS, a treatment package is sent directly from a pharmacy to the patient within one to three days. A similar process exists with other service providers. The risks and complications are explained in detail and women are provided with support throughout the whole process.
It is generally accepted that abortions are safer and better for women the earlier they are performed. BPAS has heralded telemedicine with bringing about a drop in average gestation and with abortions being performed earlier than ever before. Since the introduction of telemedicine, the Department of Health and Social Care (‘DHSC’) has reported that 30% of abortions are now performed before six weeks’ gestation, compared to only 13.5% in the same period in 2019.
The recent change in the law has helped to reduce major risks and impacts to women’s health, as well as lessened the inequality women face in accessing abortion care. National abortion statistics show that women with more limited socioeconomic circumstances are more likely to need access to abortion services. Further, the statistics indicate that these women are more likely to rely on government benefits, less likely to have access to private transport, more likely to work in jobs with poor benefits or zero-hour contracts where sick pay is minimal or non-existent and are less likely to be able to afford childcare.
So where does the law stand now? The Abortion Act 1967 was amended at the onset of Covid-19 through a statutory approval. This approval expires on the day on which the temporary provisions of the Coronavirus Act 2020 expire, or the end of the period of two years beginning with the day on which it is made, whichever is earlier. The change in regulation was essential during lockdown and is necessary to provide the best possible medical care to women in the future. However, the temporary nature of the approval has highlighted the vulnerable position women are in with respect to accessing abortion care, emphasizing the urgent need for legal reform in this area.
World Health Organization, 2020 https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/preventing-unsafe-abortion
British Pregnancy Advisory Service ‘BPAS’ ‘Pills by Post’, 2020
Department of Health & Social Care, The Abortion Act 1967 – Approval of a Class of Places
Kayla Johnson is an Assistant Manager for the Queen Mary Pro Bono Society’s Human Rights Department.