Coronavirus: Abortion law changes ruled out by health secretary Matt Hancock

George Martin
·4 min read

Abortion rules will not be changed as part of the response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the health secretary has announced, after the government published and then deleted changes to the law.

Matt Hancock was pressed by MPs after the Department of Health said it would allow women and girls to take abortion pills at home, without the need to attend a clinic or hospital, and for doctors to prescribe from their own homes.

This statement was removed from the department website just hours later on Monday, with officials saying it was “published in error”.

Speaking in the Commons, the health secretary said: “We have no proposals to change any abortion rules as part of the COVID-19 response.”

Labour’s Wes Streeting (Ilford North) said his party colleague Jess Phillips (Birmingham Yardley) had sent him a text message containing “unparliamentary language” about the issue.

BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND - MARCH 24: A woman wearing a mask walks past a police car in the town centre on March 24, 2020 in Bournemouth, United Kingdom. British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced strict lockdown measures urging people to stay at home and only leave the house for basic food shopping, exercise once a day and essential travel to and from work. The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has spread to at least 182 countries, claiming over 10,000 lives and infecting hundreds of thousands more. (Photo by Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images)
The UK has been placed on lockdown amid the coronavirus outbreak. (PA)

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He said: “I think the secretary of state needs to give a clear explanation to the House as to why it was yesterday that clear guidance was provided by the Government on access to abortion early in the day, only to be removed from the Government website later in the day.

“Why is the Government not listening to the royal colleges and why is the Government making it more difficult for women to get access to an essential procedure during this time of crisis?”

Hancock repeated his earlier answer on there being no proposals to change the law.

Warrington, United Kingdom - March 6, 2016: Warrington, UK - march 6, 2016: View of the NHS (National Health Service)  logo at the Springfields Medical Centre in the centre of Warrington, Cheshire.
Current NHS procedure requires two doctors to provide signatures to certify that the abortion being carried out does not breach the terms of the Abortion Act 1967. (Getty)

DUP MP Jim Shannon (Strangford) warned against any “stealth” changes to the law applying to “unborn children”, insisting such measures deserve appropriate scrutiny.

Health bodies have asked Mr Hancock to temporarily amend the law to ensure a single medical professional can sign off abortions so that women can access care and are not put at risk of spreading or contracting coronavirus.

The current law requires that two doctors provide signatures to certify that the abortion being carried out does not breach the terms of the Abortion Act 1967.

Over the next 13 weeks, 44,000 women in England and Wales are estimated to need access to an early medical abortion, requiring 88,000 signatures.

In normal circumstances, the need for two signatures means women can be asked to come to a clinic more than once, or to get a signature from their GP first.

The current law requires that two doctors provide signatures to certify that the abortion being carried out does not breach the terms of the Abortion Act 1967.

Over the next 13 weeks, 44,000 women in England and Wales are estimated to need access to an early medical abortion, requiring 88,000 signatures.

In normal circumstances, the need for two signatures means women can be asked to come to a clinic more than once, or to get a signature from their GP first.

Alternatively, doctors may have to physically find another doctor to provide the second authorisation.

Coronavirus cases have been rising sharply across the world. (PA)
Coronavirus cases have been rising sharply across the world. (PA)

Some of the 13 signatories include representatives from the Royal College of Midwives, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.

They want Hancock to amend the Coronavirus Bill to mirror temporary changes to the number of doctors required to detain someone under the Mental Health Act.

The letter reads: “In normal circumstances, this aspect of the law may be clinically unnecessary but it is the law nonetheless and we make the best of the situation.

“In the current circumstances with COVID-19 meaning doctors are self-isolating or off sick and the NHS under immense pressure, it wastes valuable time, puts everyone at greater risk of spreading or contracting coronavirus and risks our ability to provide abortion care at all.”

It continues: “As Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, regardless of how controversial a topic you may consider this to be, you must recognise the unacceptable impact on any woman forced to continue a pregnancy for want of a second doctor to sign off a form.”