We are carefully considering all evidence submitted to the Government’s public consultation on whether to make permanent the temporary measure allowing for home use of pills for early medical abortion. We will publish our response as soon as possible and before the end of March to give providers sufficient time to plan for whatever the outcome is.
I thank my noble friend the Minister for that Answer. The consultation on this finished 12 months ago and the current regulations expire next month. Abortion providers have made it clear that without telemedicine services, we will face enormous demand pressures resulting in longer waiting times, later abortions and even women having to resort to unsafe abortions. It would be very helpful to understand the delay to a permanent decision and why it cannot be reached when the evidence is so clear.
One of the reasons, as my noble friend would acknowledge, is that we had lockdown and then we were let out, and then we had more restrictions. We did not want to announce something and then have to go back on it. All I would say is that it was always intended to be a temporary measure. We have looked at the responses to the consultation in order to reach a decision, and we will be issuing our considerations later.
My Lords, I wish to declare my interest as chair of the trustees of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. Following up on the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, I find it very strange that the Government are taking so long to make this decision. The temporary service that was provided for early medical abortions comes to an end at the end of next month. The evidence is clear. According to a survey of 50,000 women published in a leading medical journal, telemedical abortion is
“effective, safe, acceptable and improves access to care.”
In these circumstances, what is holding up the Government’s decision? It seems obvious that it would be welcomed by doctors involved in the treatment of such women, and by the women who need this care.
As I am sure noble Lords will acknowledge, this is a very sensitive area. Initially, it was meant to be a temporary-only service. If we do decide to respect its temporariness, an extension will probably be made to ensure that the clinics and other medical services have time to adapt before returning to the position before the pandemic.
My Lords, is the Minister aware of a recent study, based on FOI requests to NHS trusts, which revealed that in 2020 more than 10,000 women who took at least one abortion pill at home, provided by the NHS, needed hospital treatment for side-effects? That is equivalent to more than one in 17 women, or 20 women a day, needing hospital treatment. Does the Minister agree that such reports indicate a serious and disturbing lack of understanding by its advocates of the dangers of the telemedical abortion policy?
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving the other side of the debate; it shows what a difficult subject this is. Sometimes people dig up the wider debate, but I think we have to be very careful and focus on the issue. This was a service offered to women, and the initial consultation was in person, but we made temporary provision, rightly, during the pandemic to ensure that women were treated with dignity, while appreciating that it had to be done at distance. We have looked at whether this should continue to be temporary or become permanent, and we are still weighing up this difficult decision. I think the debate today shows that there are a number of views, and it is not as simple as either side proposes.
My Lords, the telemedical abortion service has been evaluated separately in England, Wales and Scotland and it has proven to be world leading. The US Food and Drug Administration has recently approved telemedical abortion care in America on the basis of the UK studies. Does the Minister agree that women’s access to safe, high-quality abortion care in the UK should be non-negotiable?
I do not think that is in question. There is no doubt that women should have access to abortion services and to the right advice, but as the noble Baroness who spoke earlier indicated, there are some concerns and risks. We have to consider all the factors. Of course, it would be wonderful for some people if it was made easier and was available online; others say you must be prepared for the risks. Whatever happens, if something goes wrong, I am sure that the noble Baroness and others would be back here questioning why we did what we did.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and of the Academy of Medical Sciences. Have the Government considered the evidence from Imperial College London—indeed, from my own laboratory—showing that most human embryos are born with abnormalities which are potentially lethal, and they usually die? They are then aborted by the same process which this Bill causes, only at a later stage of pregnancy. This method of natural abortion, which occurs all the time, is mostly without symptoms to the woman: they do not even know that they have lost an embryo. It is safe and does not cause the medical complications which invariably happen with a late abortion, which a woman is then committed to. What are the Government going to do about this, firmly, to make it avoidable in future?
I am grateful to the noble Lord for informing me about that—it is something I have learned today. I will take it back and consider what he has said. To return to the Question, when we made this measure it was clear that it was supposed to be temporary. Will have consulted and will look at the consultation and decide what we will do. If we do go back to what it was like before, we will make sure there is a sufficient period to ensure there is no cliff edge.
My Lord, to return to the original Question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, may I respectfully suggest that the Minister is trying to defend the indefensible? The evidence is quite clear about the safety of the procedure. We can have a debate about alternative views, but the evidence from other countries which routinely use this method of treatment is clear: it is safe and more convenient for women, and it should be implemented immediately. Will he take this back to the Department of Health?
I think the noble Lord is being slightly unfair. It is a complicated issue and not as simple as people make out. The noble Baroness said that we should be aware of dangers. These are the issues that we considered during the consultation. Whatever we do, we will be criticised— rightly so—but we want to make sure that when we make a decision it is the right decision.
My Lords, RCOG data has shown that complications related to abortion have decreased since the telemedicine for EMA service was introduced. The college has warned that failure to make it permanent could lead to more women accessing an illegal abortion. NICE has recommended the service as best practice, so does not its future urgently need to be secured by making it permanent? It does not have to be temporary.
As I said, we are looking at the consultation carefully and considering all views. If we made it permanent, there would be lots of criticism, which we have to be aware of and make sure that we have the answers for. If we continue to expect it to be temporary, there will be plenty of criticism. Whatever we do, we will be damned, but we are going to try our best.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Patel, talked about convenience of telemedicine for women. The fact is that women from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are three times as likely to need an abortion as those from the wealthiest backgrounds. It is not just an issue of convenience. It is a question of whether childcare is available and affordable; whether someone has a zero-hours contract job and cannot afford to take time off; or whether someone does not have access to public transport. This is very much an equalities issue—that abortion is available to every woman who needs it.
I agree with that statement but it is not what the Question is about. The Question is about a temporary measure that was put in place and whether it should be made permanent. It involves the consideration of difficult issues, including ethical issues, and we want to make sure that when we come to a decision, it is justified.
First, I remind the noble Baroness that we have not made a decision. I completely refute the allegation. It is unfair but I expect that, whatever we do on this issue, people will refer to the wider debate and accusations will fly around. I accept that, but we will concentrate on looking at the data and the consultation and make a decision.