MPs vote in favour of continued online provision of medical abortion drugs

Temporary measures to allow women to have early-stage abortions at home following a video consultation during the COVID-19 pandemic will now be made permanent.
baroness sugg, member of the house of lords

MPs have voted in favour of the continued provision of medicine for early-stage abortions following a video consultation, which would remove the need for patients to attend a hospital or clinic.

The vote on 30 March 2022 approved an amendment to the Health and Care Bill, which makes permanent a measure that was initially introduced UK-wide as a temporary response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Early-stage medical abortions require patients to take two tablets — mifepristone followed by misoprostol one or two days later.

Prior to the pandemic, the first pill would be taken at a hospital or clinic, while the second could be taken at home.

However, in March 2020, temporary measures were brought in to allow both pills to be taken at home following a video or phone consultation with a registered medical practitioner.  

This measure had been due to expire on 29 August 2022 and, in February 2022, the government initially said that the provision of early-stage medical abortion should “return to pre-COVID arrangements” in England.

However, in a debate in the House of Lords on 16 March 2022, Baroness Sugg tabled an amendment to the Health and Care Bill, which “would maintain the existing provision of at-home early medical abortion following a telephone or video consultation with a clinician”.

“Removal of telemedical abortion provisions would almost certainly lead to a resurgence in women seeking to access unregulated pills bought online,” she said.

“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.”

She added that some “150,000 women have received telemedical abortions since March 2020 and the data on the number of women presenting to NHS services with complications has shown a decrease”.

Following the House of Commons vote in favour of the amendment by 215 to 188, at-home provision of early-stage abortion through telemedicine will now be put into permanent legislation under the Health and Care Bill, which is currently in its final stages of debate before receiving Royal Assent.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) had previously consulted on whether the measures should be introduced permanently between November 2020 and February 2021.

The consultation received more than 18,000 responses with almost half (9,109) from people affiliated with campaigns, including the ‘Right to Life UK’ movement, the government said.

Of the campaign-associated responses, 70% said the measure should end immediately, while 22% wanted to see it made permanent.

Of the non-campaign responses, 45% said it should end and 41% wanted it to become permanent.

In comments made on Twitter, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) said the support of MPs for the amendment was “welcome”.

This vital amendment will ensure that women having an early medical abortion will retain choice in their healthcare,” they said.

Edward Morris, president of the RCOG, added: “We are delighted that MPs have voted in favour of the amendment, which follows the Welsh government’s decision to make telemedicine for early medical abortion a permanent feature of abortion care in England.

“This is a vital decision that protects women’s rights to access the healthcare they deserve and gives them the choice of accessing early abortion care at home.”

Clare Murphy, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, described the vote as “the biggest progressive change to the 1967 Abortion Act since it passed”.

“MPs who voted for it listened to the evidence and they heard women’s voices,” she said on Twitter. “Shame on the government for trying to deny women this safe, effective choice.”

The Welsh government has already made the temporary measure permanent. In a statement issued on 24 February 2022, Eluned Morgan, Welsh minister for health and social services, said that she was “satisfied that the arrangements are safe and bring significant benefits to women and girls who wish to access abortion services”.

In Scotland, the measure remains in place while a government-commissioned independent evaluation of the service takes place.

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, March 2022, Vol 308, No 7959;308(7959)::DOI:10.1211/PJ.2022.1.136994

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