May I start by thanking the Minister for the helpful and courteous way that she has navigated this Bill through the House over the years? I was a member of the draft Bill Committee and then of the Bill Committee that met just before the general election in 2019. I have watched with interest as the Bill has developed and, I am in no doubt, improved. I also thank my own party’s Front-Bench team for their work and the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend Jess Phillips, for her tireless campaigning.
The issue that I want the House to consider today is one that has not been discussed before in all the hours of debate around domestic abuse, and it has arisen out of the covid-19 pandemic and the steps that the Government have taken to ensure that women could access reproductive healthcare services during lockdown. The Government made it very clear that that was going to be a temporary measure and that it would be revoked as soon as possible. Although the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee chided me in her contribution for tabling new clause 28, I am sure that she will understand that the opportunities to raise these matters are very few and far between and it seems to me that if you don’t go fishing, you don’t catch any fish.
New clause 28 is supported by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Midwives, the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare, the British Society of Abortion Care Providers, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, Marie Stopes, the End Violence Against Women Coalition and Women’s Aid. Hon. Members will be aware that current abortion law restricts the ability of healthcare professionals to provide care to women. The Abortion Act 1967 requires that abortion takes place on licensed premises.
That means that, outside covid regulations, women have to attend a clinic or hospital to administer the first pill as part of an early medical abortion, even if a woman is unable to safely attend a clinic because she is in an abusive relationship.
Of course, there are abortion clinics around the country, but they are not as local as GP surgeries or pharmacies. For women in more rural areas in particular, that can mean that they have to travel quite a distance to a licensed clinic. That can be difficult for many women, but for women in abusive relationships, who have to account for their time, their location and their spending, it can be impossible to safely travel to an abortion clinic. Requiring a woman to attend at a clinic is not a clinical requirement. It is simply that, because of the existing abortion law written in the 1960s, women in those circumstances cannot access legal healthcare services unless they physically attend at a licensed premises.
Of course, the basis of abortion law in England and Wales is criminalisation. If a woman ends her pregnancy without being in a licensed premises, such as by using pills bought online, she is committing a crime that carries a maximum life sentence under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861—a law from more than 150 years ago. The largest provider of online abortion pills estimates that one in five requests that it receives from Great Britain cites domestic abuse as the reason the woman cannot access legal abortion care. We have also already heard about the problems of migrant women who have no recourse to public funds.
New clause 28 would provide women in abusive relationships with the ability to access safe legal abortion care without having to attend at a clinic, so if a doctor determines that a woman is in an abusive relationship and cannot attend a clinic, she can obtain the appropriate care remotely. For women in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, that is currently available under the covid-limited regulations using telemedicine. Women can receive abortion medication at home and, as a result, illegal abortion—that is, getting tablets from the internet—has all but disappeared. Instead, women are using the legal service and not risking prosecution and criminalisation.
That is a temporary measure, however, so I am pleased indeed that the Minister on the Front Bench announced that there will be a public consultation, but I ask the Minister responding at the end of the debate to confirm that the regulations will stay in place until the public consultation has taken place and a decision has been made. That will ensure that the women whom I and other hon. Members are most concerned about can still access telemedicine and reproductive healthcare services until a public consultation has been held.