It was a relief to many last week when the Scottish Chief Medical Officer wrote to NHS Health Boards to advise that mifepristone can now legally be taken at home by women seeking early abortions. Mifepristone and misoprostol are the two drugs used in medical abortions in the first 10-12 weeks of pregnancy and, in 2018, home use of misoprostol became legal in Scotland (and shortly after in Wales and England).
However, until last week, women were still required to visit clinics to be given mifepristone, despite evidence that this is safe for home use. Given the current COVID-19 pandemic, and ‘lockdown’ conditions in the UK, this put women seeking abortion and health professionals providing care at unnecessary risk, and directly contradicted government advice against all but essential travel. This is indicative of an exceptionalism with which abortion is often marked in health services, with it also being, for example, the only routine gynaecological treatment that requires permission from two doctors for women to undergo. Conversely, the normalisation of abortion, and some of the ways in which it might be achieved, is the subject of two recent papers from the SASS project (Purcell et al 2020; Maxwell et al 2020).
Our research from 2017 found that women in Scotland were happy to have the option to return home to complete the early abortion process in the privacy and comfort of their own home, and more recent research has been exploring the shift to home self-administration of misoprostol (Harden, Boydell, et al forthcoming).
Safe self-managed abortion has long been offered to women in countries where access is restricted, by organisations such as Women on Web. For many women in Scotland, abortion care via telemedicine (phone or online consultation) and having the necessary medication posted to them will be a welcome option at this time. In particular this would improve access for women living in remote and rural areas, for whom attending a clinic is particularly difficult. It is also crucial to note that, for some women, home is not a safe or appropriate space for them to undergo an abortion, for example in cases of domestic abuse. Hence, alternatives to home self-management must continue to be provided.
Similarly, the letter from the CMO advocates that in the current context of COVID-19, women should be provided with later abortion care as close to home as possible. At present, women requiring abortion after around 18-20 weeks have to travel to clinics in England for treatment, and no later abortion service is provided north of the border, except in the case of fetal anomaly (and even then, only if the woman is willing to undergo early induction of labour). This seems in part to be down to a difficulty or lack of will to establish a service in any one NHS Health Board area, and the reluctance of some individual health professionals to be involved in abortion care as a pregnancy progresses and the fetus becomes more developed. It also relates to the different surgical techniques required (dilation and evacuation rather that the vacuum aspiration used at earlier stages, or medical induction), as well as the need for an injection to stop the fetal heartbeat prior to these.
But what will happen when the pandemic subsides and normal life begins to return (whatever that may look like)? Will the option of safe home self-management of abortion be withdrawn? Or can there be some hope that this small amendment to abortion regulation in Scotland might remain, relieving pressure on over-stretched sexual and reproductive health services, and potentially offering women more control over ending a pregnancy which they do not feel able or want to continue? It is likewise too early to speculate whether the current shift might enable a shift toward longer-term provision of later abortions in Scotland, regardless of the reason the procedure is needed. However, it could certainly set a precedent that this provision is possible for the small proportion of women who present later in pregnancy, often for complex reasons outwith their control. In doing so, it would remove the additional stress and stigma, and in some cases cost, created by the need for travel (Purcell et al 2014).
As they relate to both early and later abortion, the changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic will be worth monitoring for their longer-term implications for the equitable provision of abortion care in Scotland.