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BPAS responds to government block of MP's debate on abortion law

Published 22 October 2008


Please see comment (below) from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service on the government's block of the first Commons debate in eighteen years with the power to change abortion law. By not allowing MPs to debate abortion today, and securing this block on free voting by means of a whipped Labour vote (322 Ayes to 157 Noes), the government have ensured that there is now no foreseeable way for Parliament to authorise evidence-based legal changes which are urgently needed for patients.


The proposed changes were supported by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Nursing and British Medical Association and the findings of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s 2007 report ‘‘Scientific Developments Relating to the Abortion Act 1967’. The new clauses to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill which MPs are now prevented from voting on, were aimed at modernising the law to give women access to abortion earlier on.


Reports claim that the government’s decision not to permit MPs to vote on abortion is because of their fears that the House of Lords would attack abortion law. The previous voting records of the House of Commons on amendments to the HFE Bill show that this is unfounded.

The Lords have already rejected several non-evidence based measures on abortion and embryo research and fertility treatment during the passage of the HFE Bill. The new clauses that MPs have been prevented from voting on, were aimed at modernising the law to give women access to abortion earlier. These are evidence-based measures with the support of the medical and nursing professions. 

The charity BPAS (the British Pregnancy Advisory Service), provides around 60,000 abortions for women each year as well as all other family planning services. In response to the government's procedural motion to block MPs from voting on abortion law reform which was secured by a whipped Labour vote, Ann Furedi, Chief Executive of BPAS said:


'It's scandalous that, having denied MPs today’s chance to make the abortion law fit for purpose, Downing Street says it has no plans to reintroduce the matter.'Ministers and officials at the Department of Health have repeatedly said to us that they see no need to change the law because it is possible to ‘work around’ its deficiencies. This is not good enough. The law as it stands undermines the delivery of safe, evidence-based abortion services.


'The requirement for two doctors to certify that a woman meets the current legal grounds delays some women obtaining treatment - even though both doctors can sign the necessary forms without seeing the woman in person. The prohibition of nurses from carrying out early abortions reduces the number of available appointments at early stages- even though in many services providing the abortion pill, services are entirely run by nurses with the doctor's role confined to signing the prescription.


'Women are caused to make repeat visits to clinics to receive early medical abortion treatment under 9 weeks, so they work around the law by discharging themselves and completing their abortion at home. Women in Northern Ireland must 'work around the law' by having to travel to Britain for treatment.  'We provide an excellent abortion service- in spite of an outdated law. But society deserves better from a government that claims to be committed to public health and women's rights.'



BPAS is the UK’s leading not-for-profit sexual healthcare provider, 92% of which care is provided on behalf of the NHS. Typical non-NHS funded clients seeking abortion have travelled to BPAS from Northern Ireland, or the Irish Republic where access to safe, legal abortion remains restricted by law, usually arriving at later gestations as a consequence.


As well as contraceptive advice and treatment, BPAS carried out around 55,000 terminations of pregnancy in 2007. BPAS has centres across England, Wales and Scotland and is a specialist provider of early and late abortions.

In summary the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on the Scientific Developments Relating to the Abortion Act 1967’, report conclusions were that:

·                                 ‘The Committee supports the removal of the requirement for two doctors signatures before an abortion can be carried out.. the requirement for two signatures may be causing delays in access to abortion services and [the Committee] found no evidence of its value in terms of safety. ·                                 Nurses and midwives with suitable training and professional guidance, should not be prevented by law from carrying out all stages of early medical and early surgical abortion. The Committee found there is no evidence that this would compromise patient safety or quality of care. ·                                 The Committee concludes there is no evidence relating to safety, effectiveness or patient acceptability that should deter Parliament from passing regulations which would enable women, who chose to do so, taking the second stage of early medical abortion at home. The Committee would like to see the necessary legislative change that would enable this to be pursued or at least piloted.’      

The House of Lords voted by an unusually heavy margin (4 to 1) on 28th January 2008 to defeat a restrictive abortion amendment that would have banned all abortion for fetal abnormality. This would have forced some women, against their will, to carry babies standing no chance of survival to term. This was a higher margin of defeat than for many of the restrictive measures aimed at embryo research and fertility treatment that the Lords rejected during the passage of the Bill.

 The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists believes ‘that the current need for two doctors' signatures to certify that a woman is approved to undergo an abortion is anachronistic. There are no other situations where either competent men or women require permission from two third parties to make a personal healthcare decision.’

The RCN believes that ‘the requirement for two doctors to agree that a woman can have an abortion should be removed. We recommend a change or clarification in legislation to allow nurses and midwives to be allowed to perform early surgical abortions and to be able to prescribe Mifespristone for early medical abortions as part of a clinical team’

For more information about the different new clauses that have been put to the HFE Bill and how these would enable women to have access to abortion at the earliest possible time, please see the HFE Bill page on the Parliament website, or contact the BPAS press office.

Please call the BPAS press office on 020 7612 0206 or 07788 725 185 for more information, or to request an interview with British Pregnancy Advisory Service Chief Executive, Ann Furedi.

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