An important change to the law during lockdown made it possible for women to get abortion pills (early medical abortion) prescribed over the phone (the legislation calls this ‘telemedicine’) and then to have the pills, which are taken in two doses, 48 hours apart, sent to a home address (this is for abortions earlier than 10 weeks).
The government proposed removing this pandemic provision and returning to in-person appointments from 29 August this year. Women’s groups, medical charities and professional bodies, like the Pregnancy Advisory Service and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, lobbied to keep the at-home provision, because women like the convenience and choice it provides but also because it’s been shown to help vulnerable women – who might, for instance, be unable to get to a clinic – to get safe abortions. BPAS Chief executive Clare Murphy said, in a press release:
We’ve long known there are women who really struggle to access clinic services. They are sometimes women in very complex situations, very vulnerable women. Women in coercive relationships, for example, found it difficult to access clinics without their partner knowing. These women either turn to illegal methods or they present to us very late.Quoted by BBC News.
Earlier this month Conservative peer Baroness Liz Sugg tabled an amendment to the Health and Care Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, seeking to make the at-home service permanent (incidentally Liz Sugg was Head of Operations in David Cameron’s Number 10 PR team while Oliver Dowden was Deputy Chief of Staff – they share an organogram here. Cameron moved Sugg upstairs on his resignation in 2016). Because abortion is considered to be a matter of conscience, Government whips permitted a free vote on Sugg’s amendment in the Commons, which took place yesterday, 30 March 2022. MPs voted in favour of the amendment 212 to 184, so the provision will continue and women won’t have to go to a surgery to get the first dose.
MP for Hertsmere Oliver Dowden is one of the 184 MPs – almost all them Conservatives – who voted against retaining the service.
This vote can’t tell us much about Dowden’s attitude to abortion – he has a mixed record. Anti-abortion lobby group Right To Life maintains a web site that tracks votes for every UK legislator (this approach to holding legislators to account seems to be becoming more popular – it’s an import from US special-interest politics where it is widespread). Oliver Dowden’s page shows six abstentions and a total of three votes for or against on ‘right to life’ issues (votes are labelled green if they’re in agreement with Right to Life policy and red if not).
Dowden’s background as a hard-working member of David Cameron’s broadly socially-liberal administration might suggest support for a woman’s right not to be pregnant but his more recent enthusiastic involvement in the culture wars (statues, hedges, Maoism and so on) suggests otherwise. So it’s inconclusive.
Right to Life themselves are, as you’d expect, unhappy with the outcome of the vote. A spokesperson said, in a press release:
The group of MPs who have voted for this amendment have voted to remove vital safeguards including an in-person appointment with a medical professional. This will put thousands more women at risk from ‘DIY’ home abortion services, by removing a routine in-person consultation that allows medical practitioners to certify gestation and recognise potential coercion or abuse, ‘at-home’ abortion has presented serious risks to women and girls in abusive situations.Quoted by the Catholic News Agency.
It’s interesting to note that both sides of the argument depend on appeals to the vulnerability of women in coercive or abusive relationships to defend their positions. Can they both be right?