Speaking in the Lords a week ago today, Lord Bethell, the Health Minister, set out why the Government was opposed to home abortions, as follows:
“The safety of women remains our priority, but it is vital that appropriate checks and balances remain in place regarding abortion services, even while we are managing a very difficult situation such as Covid-19. We have worked hard with abortion providers, including the Royal College of Obstetricians, and listened to their concerns, but there are long-established arrangements in place for doctors to certify and perform abortions, and they are there for good reason…
“…However, we do not agree that women should be able to take both treatments for medical abortion at home. We believe that it is an essential safeguard that a woman attends a clinic, to ensure that she has an opportunity to be seen alone and to ensure that there are no issues.
Do we really want to support an amendment that could remove the only opportunity many women have, often at a most vulnerable stage, to speak confidentially and one-to-one with a doctor about their concerns on abortion and about what the alternatives might be? The bottom line is that, if there is an abusive relationship and no legal requirement for a doctor’s involvement, it is far more likely that a vulnerable woman could be pressured into have an abortion by an abusive partner…
…Abortion is an issue on which many people have very strong beliefs. I have been petitioned heavily and persuasively on this point. This Bill is not the right vehicle for a fundamental change in the law. It is not right to rush through this type of change in a sensitive area such as abortion without adequate parliamentary scrutiny.”
Lord Bethell and other Ministers should now explain why what he said last Wednesday no longer applies today.
For the Government this week supported what the Health Minister opposed last week. It announced on Monday that, until the sunset clause on the Bill expires, or two years pass (whichever comes sooner), a single doctor will be able to prescribe abortion pills over the phone or video so that women will perform their own abortion at home. The decision was apparently taken by Boris Johnson and a group of advisers.
In particular, it’s worth noting that the change has been made without any parliamentary scrutiny at all, adequate or otherwise.
Right to Life UK argues, in addition to the points made by Lord Bethell last week, that the move “places women at risk. The removal of any direct medical supervision overseeing the use of both abortion pills could see a rise of complications experienced by women, thus putting more strain on our NHS – having the opposite of the effect intended”.
Marie Stopes UK, the country’s leading abortion provider, maintained that unless the change was made, “women seeking abortion care will continue to be forced out of self-isolation to mix unnecessarily with others, endangering both their health and that of frontline NHS staff, at the same time as putting more pressure on a health service already stretched to the limit”.
The organisation did so after the Department of Health last week suddenly approved, without explanation, the measure that the Prime Minister has now approved…
…which it then immediately overturned (presumably the reasons given by Lord Bethell)…
…only for Johnson to overturn the overturning.
Abortion is notoriously a case of two views which, like the lines in Marvell’s poem, “though infinite, can never meet”. Though there is a middle ground that favours neither abortion on demand nor a complete ban. Some of those who hold it will believe that terminations carried out at home (or somewhere else, which is possible) without any direct medical supervision will be a step too far.
At any rate, all concerned should be able to agree that this decision, either way, is ultimately one for MPs, to be exercised via a free vote. This unparliamentary U-turn on another U-turn helps to explain why this site supported a sunset clause for the Coronavirus Bill’s provisions. Big changes to controversial social and political issues are ill suited to decisions made by Ministers and advisers behind closed doors.