Never let a good crisis go to waste, seems to be the approach of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service to the coronavirus pandemic. It has been promoting a couple of amendments to the Coronavirus Bill - two out of 14 - to allow women to take abortifacient pills at home rather than travel to a clinic to obtain the approval of two doctors, as required by law.
At present, a pregnant woman in the first three months of pregnancy would take one of the pair of pills triggering the abortion in a clinic. The amendments, proposed by Liz Barker and Natalie Bennett in the Lords would have had the effect, if enacted, of drastically liberalising the abortion law and crucially, it would have allowed any health care worker – a midwife or nurse, say – to approve an abortion. So, instead of an early abortion being carried out in a hospital or clinic, a woman’s home would have sufficed.
The bid didn’t get through the Lords, but we can I think, expect the abortion providers to return to the issue soon. This attempt to change things is being promoted as a way of ensuring that women wanting an abortion can stay at home and obey government advice on movement. The actual effect would be a liberalisation very difficult to reverse once the crisis is over.
On Tuesday, the Department for Health issued guidance that seemed to suggest that women could take abortifacient pills at home. Subsequently, that advice was withdrawn.
Does all this matter, given that the bid has failed for now? I think it does. Granted, the way the existing abortion law is interpreted means that the two-doctor assent to abortion, certifying that it conforms to the terms of the law, is about as liberally interpreted as it’s possible to imagine. The notion that abortions are restricted, as per the law, to those cases where continuing with the pregnancy would endanger the woman’s physical or mental health, is quite risibly at odds with practice. And yet that minimal safeguard is, I think, worth keeping. It may protect some women and it does send the message that abortion is not a health service like any other; there are two human lives involved.
In any event, for abortion providers and their backers to use a bill intended to combat a pandemic in order to slip in a liberalisation of the abortion law is an unedifying sort of opportunism. The fact is that people are still able to move outside their home for serious reasons. And procuring and carrying out an abortion is a serious matter. The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, was right to see this amendment off.