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Contraception and abortion divide must end to give women better fertility control

Groundbreaking new methods of birth control that a woman could use as little as once a month are hampered by abortion laws that treat pregnancy as starting from the moment of a fertilised egg implants in the womb, the head of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas) warns today.

Research into new forms of contraception for women largely focus on new delivery methods for old technologies discovered many decades ago, such as longer lasting injections, biodegradable implants or implants where the hormonal supply can be turned on an off. These methods work either by preventing the sperm reaching the egg or by preventing a fertilised egg attaching to the lining of the womb.

It is however well within our scientific reach to create a safe method that would work just after a fertilised egg has implanted in the lining of the womb, and that a woman would perhaps need only take if her period was overdue and she had had sex that month. This would mean women would not have to take medication regularly and often unnecessarily, with the unwanted side-effects that hormonal contraception often causes, and potentially could be taking one pill to bring on their period as little as twice a year (even healthy fertile women having regular sex will not conceive every cycle).

Research by bpas shows such a method would be very acceptable to women in the UK (nearly half of women would consider it were it available). The development of a once monthly pill would also be highly beneficial to women in resource-poor contexts in the developing world, where millions have unmet birth control needs, and who would potentially be able to control their fertility with just one small packet of pills per year. However, politics stands in the way. In many countries pregnancy is legally defined as beginning from the moment a fertilised egg implants, when it is the size of a poppy seed. In the UK, which has some of the harshest penalties in Europe for illegal abortion, any woman who took such a pill without authorisation from 2 doctors would be committing a crime under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which carries a penalty of life imprisonment.

In a lecture at the Royal Society of Medicine today on Making the Moral Case for Abortion, bpas chief executive Ann Furedi will argue that distinguishing between contraception and abortion in this way is meaningless to the many women who want an effective method of birth control in order to plan their families.

“What is the difference between using a method such as the copper coil that can prevent the attachment of a fertilised egg to the uterine lining, therefore allowing it to be lost, and a method that disrupts that attachment, causing it to be lost – as so many are with no intervention at all? For those who believe life begins from the moment of conception, both methods are wrong, but few others attach such moral significance to these moments.

“Many women would be interested in a pill that works post-implantation, yet the political narrative and legal framework around abortion stands in the way of its development. We must re-examine abortion laws which strip a woman of legal rights over her own body the moment implantation takes place. Women should be centre stage and enabled to make their own moral decisions about what is acceptable to them. We need to end this barrier between contraception and abortion, and find new ways to help women control their fertility in the way that works best for them.”

Press tickets are available to Making The Moral Case For Abortion at the RSM on July 21st at 6:30pm. To reserve a place or for more information please contact bpas at press@bpas.org or 020 7612 0206

About bpas:

bpas is a charity which sees more than 70,000 women a year and provides reproductive healthcare services including pregnancy counselling, abortion care, miscarriage management and contraception, at clinics across the UK. It supports and advocates for reproductive choice. More information can be found at www.bpas.org