Amid everything going on in the world right now, you’d be forgiven for missing some news that to some might not seem like a big deal. But for many women across England, a decision by the Government to end a temporary change in the law allowing them to have abortions at home, by this autumn, is not only frustrating, but potentially damaging, both physically and mentally.
In March 2020, due to the pandemic, abortion law was changed to allow women to obtain abortion pills through the post after a video or phone consultation. The so-called ‘pills by post’ legislation was originally a temporary measure, but its success in making abortion more accessible prompted calls for it to be made permanent.
Around 100,000 women in England and Wales have had an abortion at home in the last two years thanks to the new law, with more than 80% of women surveyed by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) saying it was their preferred termination option. However, on 24 February, it was announced that the service, initially set to expire at the end of last month, would be temporarily extended before ending at midnight in England on 29 August. (Wales, in contrast, has made at-home abortion a permanent option.)
As a 39-year-old, happily married woman who needed an abortion earlier this year, the temporary law allowed me to undergo a difficult procedure discreetly and quickly within weeks of becoming pregnant. It wasn’t my first abortion (several years ago I underwent one under the old system), so I can safely say the telemedical system is not only more efficient, but also comprehensive and caring.
I had two phone consultations with a midwife who listened, advised and explained everything to me in the comfort of my own home, rather than a packed clinic. The waiting time from the first call to the second consultation was two weeks, with the pills arriving a few days later. Not a long time in the grand scheme of things, but two weeks can feel like a lifetime in a situation like this. Without the telemedical system, who knows how long that wait would have been. Long enough to cause me even more turmoil? Long enough to have pushed me into a stage where I would need a more invasive, surgical abortion?
The head of BPAS has made it clear that the pills by post system is helping. Not just helping a system that’s under strain – in 2020 there were 209,917 abortions in England and Wales, the highest number since the Abortion Act was introduced.
But it’s also helping women. Helping those for whom attending a clinic isn’t just an inconvenience, but maybe dangerous or traumatic. Helping remove some of the taboo around abortion that still exists in 2022 – something I have lived through, feeling unable to confide in those closest to me for fear of judgment. And helping to empower women who can be trusted to make decisions like this for themselves and can follow advice and instruction just as well over the phone as in person.
Yet, despite the pleas for the pills by post system to stay, we’ll see a return to women having to attend appointments in person. And so those like me, and many in far worse circumstances, can expect another step backwards when it comes to abortion.