‘Time is running out’ to make telemedical abortion service permanent, providers warn

Non-profit reproductive healthcare providers have written to warn the government that “abortion services will not cope if telemedical provision is withdrawn” in the coming weeks.

Regulations which provide permission for at-home early medical abortion care are set to expire on 30 March. Around half of all abortions are currently provided by telemedicine, yet the government has yet to announce a decision on the future of the service.

Providers say that revoking permission would lead to increased waiting times, a shortfall of appointments, and a 43% increase in terminations post-20 weeks.

Services are experiencing a surge in demand for abortion care alongside unprecedented staff shortages due to Omicron. One provider reports a 700% increase in COVID-19 related absences in the first week of 2022 compared to the first week of December 2021.

If everyone was again required to attend for face-to-face treatment, one provider alone would be able to provide 190 fewer abortions every week, pushing up gestations

The charities wrote to the minister for public health Maggie Throup last month, stating that “time is now running out to protect a healthcare service that protects the health and wellbeing of women.”

The letter warned Throup of the “disastrous” consequences for access to abortion care if the current permission for at-home early medical abortion care is revoked.

At the start of pandemic, the-then health secretary Matt Hancock granted permission for early medical abortion medication to be delivered by post and taken at home.

The telemedicine service was available to all those who were clinically suitable following a telemedical consultation with a nurse, midwife, or doctor. In 2021, the government ran a consultation on whether to keep telemedicine as a permanent option.

As the regulations which provide permission for the service are set to expire on 30 March, the government will likely make a decision soon on whether to make it permanent.

The three leading abortion care providers, BPAS, MSI Reproductive Choices, and NUPAS have written to the minister to share their concerns about the potential impact of revoking permission for the service, including the risks to women’s health and wellbeing.

Clare Murphy, chief executive of BPAS said: “We cannot be clearer – services will not cope if our ability to provide early abortion care for women at home is removed. Telemedical abortion care is safe, effective and preferred by many women. All NHS services are under huge strain as a result of the pandemic, and abortion care is no different – with unprecedented numbers of staff self-isolating or absent due to illness.

“Women will face significantly longer waits to treatment if their access to telemedical care is withdrawn by Government and will need later procedures as a result – and this when services are least able to provide them, pushing up gestations even further.  While abortion is safe and considerably safer than carrying a pregnancy to term, the earlier it can be offered the better for women’s physical and mental health.

“The U.K. led the way in introducing telemedical abortion care at home at the start of the pandemic, and many countries – including the US – have followed suit. We should be proud of what we have been able to provide for women. It would be a travesty if it were withdrawn.”

Catherine Robinson, spokesperson for the pro-life charity Right to Life UK said in light of the news: “Given that the current temporary provision continues to put women at risk, it is vital that the Government ends this temporary policy at the planned end-date of 30 March 2022, if not before. This will ensure that women get an in-person appointment before having an abortion and make sure no more women are put at risk by the temporary provision.”

“Over 600 medical professionals have signed an open letter to the Government calling for an end to ‘at-home’ abortion due to concerns that it has led to a number of abortions occurring over the ten-week limit and that it fails to protect women and girls from being coerced into an abortion against their will.”

“A number of significant problems have arisen since ‘DIY’ home abortions were introduced during the Covid-19 pandemic, as the policy has left women and girls facing unplanned pregnancies to self-administer their own abortions at home without in-person medical supervision, reliable in-person safeguarding checks or a routine in-person medical examination.”

“A study released in November 2021 suggested that more than 10,000 women had to receive hospital treatment following the use of medical abortion pills in England between April 2020 and September 2021.”

“A nationwide undercover investigation, undertaken by Kevin Duffy, a former Global Director of Clinics Development at Marie Stopes International, found evidence of abortion providers putting women at significant risk by not carrying out basic checks before sending them ‘DIY’ home abortion pills. The investigation also discovered ‘DIY’ home abortion pills can easily be obtained and administered to others, potentially in a coercive manner.”

“Polling suggests that the public do not see this as a debate about the rights or wrongs of abortion, but that the general public, and in particular women, are deeply concerned about women being put at risk by ‘DIY’ at-home abortion schemes. Recent polling shows that the overwhelming majority of women and GPs surveyed were concerned by the possibility of pills being falsely obtained for another person, and by women having medical abortions at home beyond the legal limit. Previous polling has revealed that 92% of women in Britain agreed that a woman requesting an abortion should always be seen in person by a qualified doctor.”