The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) has challenged a law that means pills for early stage abortions must be taken at registered clinics.
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It argues Britain should move in line with other countries such as France, Sweden and the US and allow women to take the drugs in their family homes.
A clinical trial in Aberdeen five years ago found 98% of women who took the pills at home were satisfied with the experience. International medical advisors and the UK Government have already stated it would be safe and effective to do so.
However, the UK Department of Health insists the current law, introduced more than 40 years ago, means women must take abortion drugs in a registered clinic. It has challenged the High Court action.
Currently, women visit a clinic twice – once for an initial dose of medication and, a day or two later, for a dose of misprostol, which induces the abortion. It is the second dose the campaigners would like to see taken at home, as a miscarriage occurs within two to four hours of ingesting it – forcing women to hurry home before cramping and bleeding kick in.
Women who wanted to stay at a clinic could still do so, though a study of BPAS clients last year found 86% prefer to leave.
Dr Patricia Lohr, the charity’s medical director, said: “Most women prefer to go home because it’s a private setting, it’s comfortable, they can have their friends with them, they can have their family with them, they can have their partner.”
Ann Furedi, chief executive of BPAS, said the charity would no longer “sit back” while the issue was stamped down by the “ebbing and flowing of enthusiasm” within Government.
Ms Furedi accused politicians of saying whatever is “politically expedient” about the thorny issue of abortions while ignoring clear medical evidence.”
She argued that the official interpretation of the 1967 Abortion Act is “not in-keeping with the intentions of parliament when it passed the original legislation, which were to ensure abortion was provided safely”.
Lord Steel, the Liberal Democrat peer who was instrumental in bringing about the law, told The Herald last night he would be “relaxed” about the prospects of changing the law now.
“I can see that there is a case, because it’s a bit cumbersome, but that’s for the Department of Health to decide,” he said. “The development of these pills has long since overtaken the 1967 Act, so it is up to the Department.”
The Act states that “any treatment for the termination of pregnancy” must be carried out in a hospital or clinic, which the Department of Health interprets to mean both the prescription and administration of drugs.
If BPAS wins its case in the High Court, the drugs will still be dispensed by doctors, but will be ingested at home.
A 2007 report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee said this would be “safe, effective and acceptable”, noting that in the US – where it is routine practice – the fatality rate was less than one per 100,000 procedures and no more than in regular miscarriages.
A 2005 trial by scientists at Aberdeen University recorded a 98% approval rating from women who had taken the pills at home.
Ms Furedi said politicians should shape laws in line with best clinical practice, not because they “fear criticism from those who oppose abortion in principle”.
The Department of Health said its interpretation of the law was correct, but it was ultimately a matter for the courts to decide.
The Scottish Government declined to comment, as abortion law is reserved to Westminster.
Pro-life group the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children has already vowed to intervene in the case, accusing BPAS of “trivialising abortion and jeopardising women’s welfare”.