Judge refuses to allow women to have early medical abortions at home

2/14/11

A bid to relax the law on early medical abortions by allowing women to take some of their pills at home, was rejected by the High Court today.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) argued that advances in medical science meant the law should now allow the second dose of tablets for an early medical abortion (EMA) to be self-administered at home.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley opposed the move. His lawyers argued that the 1967 Abortion Act still required women to take both first and second doses under supervision in a hospital or other medical premises.

Today Mr Justice Supperstone, sitting at the High Court in London, ruled in favour of the Health Secretary and dismissed the BPAS’s case.

BPAS lawyers said women suffered unnecessary anxiety about miscarrying on the way home from the clinic after the second round of tablets, especially if they had to travel long distances and use public transport.

Today the judge had to decide on the meaning of the words ‘any treatment for the termination of pregnancy’ under Section 1(3) of the Abortion Act, and whether they covered both the prescription and the administration of the drugs used in abortion.

The judge upheld the Government’s interpretation that the administration of both sets of abortion tablets amounted to ‘treatment’ which must be carried out by a ‘registered medical practitioner’ on premises approved under the Abortion Act.

He said the section was ‘consistent’ with the Health Secretary’s submissions as to the meaning of the concept of ‘treatment’.

‘Further, the section does make clear Parliament’s decision that it is the Secretary of State, not the medical profession, who has the responsibility for approval of the place where the treatment may take place.’

He said that the effect, ‘and indeed the very purpose’, of what was being sought by the BPAS would be that the Secretary of State’s approval would no longer be needed to designate approved places.

‘In my view this would be directly contrary to Parliament’s clear intention.’

But the judge made it clear that it was within the Health Secretary’s powers to approve a wider range of place where an abortion could take place – ‘including potentially the home’.

Later the BPAS said it was ‘disappointed’ that its interpretation of the Abortion Act was ‘not deemed viable’.

But the charity said it was at the same time “very pleased” that the judge had ruled that Section 1(3A) of the Abortion Act, as amended in 1990, enabled the Secretary of State to react to ‘changes in medical science’, and approve ‘a wider range of place’ for abortions.

The charity said the ruling showed that Mr Lansley now had power “to ensure women receive best possible care”.

The charity called for ‘a legal re-definition of treatment’ to enable women undergoing medical abortion in early pregnancy to take some of the medication at home rather than in a clinic.

BPAS stated: ‘This would put an end to women making multiple, medically unnecessary visits to clinics and eliminated the risk of abortion symptoms beginning – and in some cases the miscarriage itself occurring – as they travelled home after taking the tablets.

‘It would also have brought UK medical abortion practice, governed by laws dating back to a time when termination of pregnancy was entirely surgical, into line with international standards of care.’

The charity said the increasing number of women using tablets for abortion every year ‘means resolving this issue is now a matter of great urgency’.

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