Government move to end at-home abortion service overturned by peers

Women should be able to continue to access abortion care at home, peers have demanded.

The House of Lords backed the retention of the service, which the Government had decided to end in August, by 75 votes to 35, a majority of 40.

During the first coronavirus lockdown in March 2020, the Department for Health and Social Care changed regulations allowing women to have medical abortions at home following a phone or video consultation.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid recently decided the temporary measure, introduced in response to the pandemic, would end with the return to pre-Covid arrangements in August.

But opponents argue this represented a “rollback of women’s rights”.

Proposing an amendment to the Health and Care Bill to continue the provision, Tory former minister Baroness Sugg (pictured) said: “There is overwhelming evidence that allowing women the option to access early medical abortion at home, where clinically appropriate, has created a safer and more effective service.

“Removal of telemedicine abortion provisions will almost certainly lead to a resurgence in women seeking to access unregulated pills being bought online. And without telemedicine waiting times will rise.

“There is a serious risk that some women would as a result be unable to access legal abortion care, either because the providers do not have the capacity or because increased waiting times push some women over the legal limit.

“To take a service away from women, a service that has proved to be safe and accessible and compassionate, which enables women to deal with a difficult situation in the comfort and privacy of their own home, is not the right way forward.”

She added: “We should stand strongly against what would be a rollback of women’s rights.”

But pointing out it was a temporary measure, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Rev Paul Butler, said: “I support the Government’s decision to return to the pre-pandemic system for early medical abortions from August, which was supported by many in the public consultation response. I also share the concerns… around potential for coercion, the greater possibility of inaccurate assessment, further complications and lack of support.”

DUP peer Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown said: “This policy was said to be time limited, but many feared, like myself, that this was another way of extending abortion on-demand.

“Continuing the policy in my opinion is not proportionate, although I did not think it ever was.”

Conservative Baroness Stroud said: “This amendment sounds so nice. Pills by post in the comfort of your own home. But in reality it leaves women medically exposed and vulnerable to health complications and also vulnerable to coercion.”

Labour frontbencher Baroness Thornton said: “Women want this. It’s safe. Why should it not continue?”

Responding, Tory frontbencher Earl Howe told peers the measure had always been time limited.

He said: “The secretary of state has decided that the provision of early medical abortion should return to pre-Covid arrangements from midnight on August 29 2022.

“He has done so for three principle reasons. First, in the light of the success and impact of the national vaccination and booster programme. Second, having carefully considered all the response submitted to the Government’s public consultation on whether to make permanent the temporary measure. And third, on the basis of wider evidence regarding the provision of the service since March 2020.”

He added: “The intention of this amendment is to halt this process and overturn the secretary of state’s decision. In our view this is not the appropriate way to achieve the intended policy objectives.”

Earlier, peers rejected a bid by Tory former Cabinet minister Lord Forsyth of Drumlean to force the Government to introduce draft legislation on assisted dying to ensure Parliament could fully consider the controversial issue.

The Government also suffered further defeats to the Health and Care Bill, with the Lords backing the imposition of a polluter pays levy on tobacco firms to fund anti-smoking efforts.

In addition, peers supported a move to ban Britons from travelling to countries such as China for “organ tourism” and demanded steps aimed at ensuring effective mediation was available in palliative treatment disputes involving children, following high-profile cases such as Charlie Gard and Alfie Evans.

The changes made by the Lords will be considered by MPs when the legislation returns to the Commons at a late date.

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