In 2020, when the pandemic began and England went into lockdown, the government (after a fair bit of back and forth) agreed with experts such as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) and Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) that the best thing to do was allow those who needed early medical (as opposed to surgical) abortions to have them at home.
As the pandemic progressed, there has been uncertainty as to whether this would be allowed to continue. Over the last two years BPAS said they were "desperately concerned about the impact on women if this service were to be revoked".
At-home early medical abortion is generally agreed to be better for everyone. According to BPAS, multiple peer-review studies have found that telemedicine is safe, effective and preferred by a majority of women.
The fact that at-home abortions will continue means that women and people with wombs can take the medication required to induce a termination at home. This is more comfortable and it reduces waiting times. So this news is incredibly good (if a little overdue).
We welcome the government’s decision to continue to allow women to access this service, this shouldn’t have been up for debate.
Katherine O’Brien, associate director, British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS)
BPAS also notes that this news will particularly help those in difficult situations. Prior to the introduction of at-home early medical abortion, women unable to safely leave their homes to attend appointments and those caring for disabled children risked criminalisation – and up to life imprisonment – by using abortion medication purchased online.
The Department of Health and Social Care has not yet published the details of its plans. Katherine O’Brien, associate director at BPAS, welcomed the announcement nonetheless.
"At-home early medical abortion care has reduced waiting times, reduced complications, and women have told us how much they value the service and want it to continue so other women in the future can benefit. While other healthcare services have been suspended or seen significant increases in waiting times during the pandemic, access to abortion has not only been maintained but has improved, enabling women to end pregnancies at the earliest possible gestations," she told Refinery29.
"At a time when the NHS is under severe strain, the ability to provide a better service that women prefer at a lower cost is rare. We welcome the government’s decision to continue to allow women to access this service, this shouldn’t have been up for debate. If this was any other area of healthcare, we wouldn’t have had to spend months lobbying for the ability to continue to provide a safe, effective service," she added.
The Labour MP Dame Diana Johnson who has long-campaigned on abortion rights told Refinery29 that "at-home abortion care is vital lifeline for women up and down the country, it is safe, effective and improves access for thousands of women who might otherwise struggle to get the care they need."
“It would have been incredibly cruel to take this service away and I’m glad the government have listened to the experts and the voices women and chosen to retain this service," she said.
Johnson also noted that while this news is "an important step in the right direction" there is still "a long way to go."
The fight for abortion rights in England and Wales is not over. Abortion is still technically a criminal offence in England and Wales, as highlighted in our #ImACriminal campaign. This is because the 1967 Abortion Act, which legalised abortion for the first time, did not get rid of a Victorian law known as the Offences Against The Person Act. Experts have long been calling for this to change and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) is just one of many organisations which back full decriminalisation of abortion.
"It is not right that abortion continues to remain in the criminal law in the UK, it is an out of date approach that discriminates against women," Johnson added.
Whether the government will act to change this once and for all remains to be seen. The success of at-home abortion throughout the pandemic has shown that there is another way. So could further reform be on the horizon?
Refinery29 has approached the Department of Health and Social Care for a response.