Withdrawal of telemedicine abortion ‘shows Government doesn’t trust women’ on reproductive health

The Government is ignoring advice from medical experts and women by withdrawing an at-home early abortion service introduced during the pandemic, ministers have heard.

Labour former minister Dame Diana Johnson said she is “absolutely furious” that the telemedicine for early abortion service is due to be withdrawn at the end of August.

Caroline Nokes (pictured), Conservative chairwoman of the women and equalities committee, told MPs the change demonstrated the Government “doesn’t trust women to make their own decisions about their own reproductive health”.

As MPs took part in a debate to mark International Women’s Day, Dame Diana said: “I am absolutely furious about the Government’s decision that it would end telemedicine for early medical abortions after August 30 this year, ignoring the clinical evidence and advice of many royal colleges and clinicians.

“I just want to be clear so we are all aware in the chamber that telemedicine for early medical abortion services has enabled thousands of women to access care at home via both pills being posted to them following a telephone consultation with a qualified nurse or midwife, and the evidence from the medical community is absolutely crystal clear.

“A study of more than 50,000 abortions before and after the changes in England and Wales published by the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in February 2021 concluded that telemedicine abortion provision is effective, safe, acceptable and improves access to care.

“Evidence also shows that telemedicine means that women are able to access an abortion much earlier in their pregnancy, with 40% of abortions provided in less than six weeks.”

Dame Diana said women “support the continuation of telemedicine abortion”, including “very influential” website Mumsnet, and added that the scheme will be continued by the Welsh Government.

She added: “I therefore struggle to see how the decision to end the services in August is in line with the Government’s commitment to put women at the centre of their own healthcare, as set out in the vision for women’s health strategy.”

Intervening, Ms Nokes said: “Does she feel as I do that this is sending the message that the Government doesn’t trust women to make their own decisions about their own reproductive health?”

Dame Diana replied: “That is exactly the message that is being sent out,” and called on the Government to “explain exactly how they will review this decision as they have promised to do”.

Later in the debate, Conservative former minister Jackie Doyle-Price called for the Abortion Act to be reviewed.

She told MPs: “I repeat what I have said many times in this place: the abortion law is more than 50 years old. It was written before we had medical abortion and abortion was a surgical procedure and much more dangerous to boot for that reason.

“If we are really going to look at women’s reproductive rights from a perspective of safety, may I helpfully suggest that perhaps we need a review that doesn’t rely on individual members of Parliament tackling this as a matter of conscience?”

Earlier this year, the Government extended the at-home abortion pill offer for six months until August.

MPs have previously challenged the Government about why the change has not been made permanent, with health minister Maggie Throup replying that the measures were “put in place during the pandemic to address a specific and acute medical need to reduce to the risk of transmission of Covid-19”.

In her closing remarks, Government minister Trudy Harrison said: “I have certainly heard those calls and I’m sure they’ve also been heard by ministers in health. I understand that there will be a review taking place but I’m going to ask my colleagues in health to write to her (Dame Diana Johnson) with that particular response.

“The well-being and safety of women requiring access to abortion services has been and will continue to be our first and foremost priority.”

Sir Peter Bottomley, father of the House and Conservative MP for Worthing West, intervened to say he would vote to extend the telemedicine service.

He told MPs: “Can I say through her to the whips that if there’s a clear vote in this House, I would vote to extend the telemedicine and I would encourage my friends to do the same. And I would suggest the chief whip asked his colleagues to consult each of us on what our views are.”

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