The right for a woman in Britain to have an abortion before 24 weeks (with the exception of Northern Ireland) is enshrined in law. However, last week Grazia’s sister publication thedebrief.co.uk found that the system isn’t working as well as it should be.
The Debrief revealed exclusively that women are repeatedly being made to wait for more than the NHS-recommended 10 working days from first seeing a doctor to having the procedure. In fact, last year 64% of areas in England exceeded this waiting time for surgical abortions, while 26% exceeded it for medical abortions (where you take two pills 48 hours apart).
50 years ago last week, the 1967 Abortion Act was passed in the UK, legalising abortion in England, Scotland and Wales. It was a landmark ruling that changed the lives and futures of countless women. But, half a century on, the fact that abortion must be authorised by two separate doctors before it can be performed, has thrown the process into question. Waiting times are getting worse year on year – despite the number of abortions performed remaining steady at around 185,000 per year. 64% of Clinical Commissioning Groups reported longer waiting times in 2016 than 2015. Incidentally, Leicester had the longest waiting times in the country – coming in at 22.7 calendar days, followed by Sheffield at 19.4 days.
Debrief writer Tara Lepore started looking into the numbers after she was forced to wait 40 days for an abortion after her first appointment with a doctor. By the time she had the procedure she was 13 weeks pregnant meaning she had to have a surgical abortion.
The difference between a surgical abortion is huge – the former involves taking two pills to induce a miscarriage and you can go home once you’ve taken the medication. However, a surgical abortion performed before 15 weeks of pregnancy involves either conscious sedation or an anaesthetic so that what’s a called a ‘vacuum aspiration’ can be performed to empty out the womb. Last year, 55% of the 185,824 abortions that were carried out in England and Wales were medical while 40% involved vacuum aspiration.
‘It is safe to say that during this long process I was beginning to feel quite pregnant,’ Tara wrote in her investigation. ‘This was the hardest thing about having to to wait – the constant, physical reminder that you were playing a waiting game you don’t want to play.’
And it’s not just the he y emotional impact of having to carry on with a pregnancy you don’t want or can’t continue with for weeks on end. The longer you have to wait for a procedure, the more likely you are to need a surgical abortion.
‘When I had my first consultation I was around six weeks pregnant,’ Tara explains. ‘By the time I went for my ultrasound appointment I was told that I was just beyond nine weeks, which meant it was too late to have a medical abortion.’
She says ‘every single day is more difficult than the last’ when you are carrying an unwanted pregnancy because ‘the physical symptoms and total exhaustion were a constant reminder of what was going on. I knew then and know now that I was making the right decision but when you’re waiting and feeling hormonal, it can be confusing. Your body is sending you very strong messages because it’s preparing to accommodate a baby but in your head you know you don’t want that.’
So what’s causing the delays in waiting times? In part, it’s down to lack of funding. ‘Waiting times have gone up in the last year because of problems with services and capacity in the UK,’ explains Clare Murphy, head of public policy at British Pregnancy Advisory Service. ‘These are starting to improve but they can definitely still be better.’
But according to Laura Russell, policy and public affairs officer of the Family Planning Association, a big issue is the lack of flexibility around abortion law, which makes the process unnecessarily onerous. ‘Two doctors signing off and women having to go specific premises for an abortion [you cannot currently take the abortion pill at in your own home in England] does put barriers between women and accessing abortions. The law is not allowing for the best abortion care that we could be providing.’
One in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime, and if you live in England, Scotland and Wales it’s easy to take access to safe, legal and free abortions for granted. But with waiting times creeping up and so many hoops to jump through just to get the procedure done, is the 1967 abortion act still doing what it needs to do for women?