The COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly changed life as we know it. Every aspect of our day to day lives, from working conditions to how we start and nurture relationships, has had to adapt to a new normal. Access to reproductive health services in the UK also saw a huge shift since the start of the pandemic – including abortion services.
Although it carries some risks, abortion is a very safe procedure. On average it is much safer than continuing with the pregnancy and giving birth. The earlier an abortion is carried out, the safer it is, too.
How to get an abortion in the UK
In the UK there are two ways of ending an unwanted pregnancy: a medical abortion, or a surgical abortion.
What is an abortion pill?
Medical abortions are usually carried out in the early stages of pregnancy (within 10 weeks). It involves taking two pills, usually 24 to 48 hours apart. A medical abortion is sometimes known as the ‘abortion pill’, not to be confused with emergency contraception, aka the ‘morning after pill’, which prevents pregnancy.
The first medication you will be given is mifepristone, which ends the pregnancy – this needs to be taken in the clinic. The second medication is misoprostol, a pill which causes your uterus to expel the pregnancy within four to six hours (sometimes longer).
Depending on the clinic and provider, your doctor or nurse will either supply both pills at the same time so you can take misoprostol at home one to three days after the first pill. Sometimes, however, they will ask you to return to the clinic for the second pill.
What is a surgical abortion?
Surgical abortions, on the other hand, are usually done for later-stage pregnancies (between 10 and 24 weeks gestation). Surgical abortions involve an invasive procedure that has to be carried out under anaesthetic.
Whether you choose to have a medical or surgical abortion depends on several factors, like your medical history, how far along the pregnancy is, and whether you prefer to be awake or unconscious for the procedure.
In March 2020 the Government temporarily changed the law so that women could access early medical abortions via telemedicine in line with COVID-19 guidelines.
The new law encouraged phone and video consultations, and anyone seeking a medical abortion could take the mifepristone and misoprostol in the comfort of their own home. Women were still allowed to visit a clinic if an ultrasound was necessary before terminating the pregnancy.
Telemedicine abortion during the COVID-19 pandemic
A recent study analysed national data on more than 50,000 early medical abortions from before and after the pandemic. This was the largest ever study of abortion care in the UK, and it aimed to compare data and see how the telemedicine service compares to the abortions services pre-pandemic.
The study found that allowing women to have abortions at home has provided a safe, effective and more accessible service. The key findings from the study were:
- Waiting times improved from 10.7 days to 6.5 days
- Effectiveness remained the same for abortions carried out through the traditional service and the telemedicine service.
- There were no cases of significant infection. Contrary to misleading claims, no one died from having an early medical abortion at home.
- 80% of women said telemedicine was their preferred option and they would choose it in the future.
What does this mean for the future abortion access in the UK?
The law hasn’t changed, but this data proves that telemedicine abortions are a safe and more accessible option. Making medical abortions av aulable via telemedicine would be a huge step forward for reproductive rights.
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) and abortion service providers in the UK are urging the government to make this telemedicine service permanently available for the the 200,000 people seeking abortions every year in the UK.
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