Today marks 50 years since the passing of the Abortion Act, a momentous move that made it possible for women in England, Scotland and Wales to legally and safely end unwanted pregnancies, albeit only with the approval of two doctors. The law also maintained that ending a pregnancy using pills – a medical abortion – was illegal outside of a clinical setting.
But now, half a century on, one part of the UK is updating its approach to this part of the law. Women in Scotland will be allowed to take the abortion pill in their own homes, the BBC reported, like women in other countries such as Sweden and France. Abortion providers and women's charities have been campaigning for the UK to change the law for years, so Scotland's move is a welcome step in the right direction.
The vast majority (89.4%) of the 12,063 abortions carried out in Scotland in 2016 involved drugs rather than a surgical procedure. During a medical abortion, a woman must take two different pills – the first of which, mifepristone, stops the hormone progesterone from maintaining the pregnancy, while the second pill, misoprostol, causes cramps and heavy bleeding within about two hours.
Being forced to take misoprostol in a clinic and then go home causes problems for many women, particularly those who have long distances to travel. In a recent BBC documentary, one woman recalled passing clots in a bus station toilet, while others have spoken about passing foetuses in public places.
Scotland's chief medical officer has written to all health boards to say women can now take misoprostol at home, reported the BBC. The country's government said it was proud to "ensure women are always able to access clinically safe services".
Aileen Campbell, its public health minister, continued: "Scotland is now the only part of the UK to offer women the opportunity to take misoprostol at home when this is clinically appropriate, a decision that allows women to be in control of their treatment and as comfortable as possible during this procedure."
Meanwhile the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), which has long been lobbying for change, praised the decision. "This will spare women not only the difficulties associated with having to make more than one clinic visit – childcare, transport, time off work – but it will also spare women from the risk of symptoms on their way home, having taken the medication in a clinic," said Ann Furedi, the organisation's chief executive.
She added that it was "simply perverse" that women who visit clinics with an incomplete miscarriage in England and Wales could be given the drugs to take at home, while a woman wanting an abortion could only legally take them on site. "We hope that the government will follow Scotland's lead and roll out this important policy change across the rest of Great Britain," Furedi added.