On the 50th anniversary of legal abortion care in Britain, women’s advocates call on Jeremy Hunt to improve access to early termination services

  • Today, Friday 27th April, marks 50 years since abortion could be provided lawfully in England, Wales and Scotland
  • The implementation of the 1967 Abortion Act finally allowed women to end a pregnancy safely, putting an end to backstreet abortions, but there are many obstacles still to overcome
  • In a letter published in today’s Times, a coalition of women’s organisations calls on the Health Secretary to allow abortion pills to be taken at home to reduce risk and indignity of cramping and bleeding on journey home from clinic
  • Meanwhile young doctors are urging decriminalisation, to protect women and their clinicians from the threat of prosecution, and secure access to abortion for women from Northern Ireland

50 years ago today the Abortion Act was implemented, legalising abortion provision in England, Wales and Scotland. The implementation of the Act was a key milestone in women’s healthcare, enabling women to terminate an unwanted pregnancy safely and bringing an end to the backstreet abortions that claimed many women’s lives.

Today also marks 50 years since the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), Britain’s largest charitable abortion provider, opened its doors for the first time in Birmingham. The service now has over 70 clinics across England, Wales and Scotland, seeing almost 80,000 women per year for pregnancy options counselling, contraception, abortion care and miscarriage management.

Over the decades we have been supporting women, there have been huge advances in clinical care. In 1968 abortion was almost entirely surgical, and no-one could have imagined that medication would one day enable women to safely and effectively end a pregnancy. Today nearly two thirds of all abortions are medical, and over 70% of abortions under 10 weeks. Early medical abortions involve taking 2 sets of medication, ideally 24-48 hours apart, but outdated regulations mean women have no choice but to take the pills in a hospital or clinic before travelling home, risking bleeding, cramping and even miscarriage on the way.

In a letter published in today’s Times, medical and women’s organisations including bpas, the RCOG, Fawcett Society and End Violence Against Women call on the Health and Social Care Secretary Jeremy Hunt to follow his counterparts in Wales and Scotland and enable women to use abortion medication at home once lawfully prescribed, in line with guidance from the World Health Organisation and good practice around the world. Women in England can already use these pills at home for treatment of an incomplete miscarriage, and signatories ask for the “same dignity to be extended to women requesting an early abortion”.

The 1967 Abortion Act did not decriminalise abortion, but made it lawful when two doctors determined that a woman met specific criteria and gave legal authorisation for the abortion to go ahead. Any abortion outside of this framework carries the threat of prosecution and even life in prison. There have been mounting calls for abortion to be decriminalised and regulated in the same way as all other medical procedures, enabling the development of a truly patient-centred service, and protecting women and their doctors from the threat of prosecution. These provisions can deter doctors from training in the field with real consequences for patients.

Medical student Sean Rees, who has a special interest in reproductive healthcare and abortion, is optimistic about the future:

“I’m excited and passionate about working in this area of medicine because, when seen as part of the wider services that should be available to women, safe and legal abortion services enable women to have reproductive and bodily autonomy, to have control over the number and spacing of their children, and as such to enjoy a complete role in civil society. With momentum building up behind the campaign to take abortion out of the criminal law, big changes can be expected for the future of abortion provision. Doctors and nurses are demanding change, which will help develop services across the country that finally serve the best interests of women.”

Clare Murphy, Director of External Affairs at bpas, said:

“There is a lot to celebrate on this anniversary.  Access to safe abortion over the last 50 years has enabled millions of women to make the choices that are right for them and their families. It is brilliant to see a new generation of young medics inspired to ensure women can continue to access these services. But there is still so much to be done.  In Northern Ireland, women are still denied the care they need at home and any woman caught ordering pills online risks life in prison. In the 21st century there is no place for the criminal law in the provision of an essential women’s healthcare service, and we will keep campaigning until we have a framework fit for the needs of women today, from Belfast to Brighton. Women deserve nothing less.”

ENDS

For media enquiries please call 0207 061 3377, 07788 725 185 or email press@bpas.org.

Notes to Editors:

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 bpas.org.