UNITED KINGDOM – Abortion care services are facing unprecedented demand; data show surge in requests for abortion advice post-lockdown 

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), the leading provider of abortion services in the UK, is warning that abortion care services are facing unprecedented demand, with contacts to the charity increasing by around one third between March and September 2021. Data released on 3 November 2021 by BPAS show a surge in requests for abortion advice in the six months following the easing of lockdown restrictions.

In March 2021, BPAS received 25,338 calls. In September 2021, the figure was 35,033. The reasons for this are likely to include greater social contact, shortfalls in contraceptive access, and uncertainty about the future. NHS data released in September 2021 showed that during 2020/21, there was a 22% fall in contraception-related contacts with sexual and reproductive healthcare services, compared to 2019/20 – representing a fall of 288,833 in contraception-related contacts.

The need for abortion in the second trimester has also been growing but due to staffing issues and the lack of hospital space for surgical procedures, appointments have not always been found. This is resulting in a growing number of women being turned away and forced to continue pregnancies against their will.

At the start of the pandemic, temporary permission was given for early medical abortion pills to be used by women at home following a telemedical consultation, to reduce the transmission of Covid-19. This allowed over 100,000 women to swiftly and safely access early medical abortion before ten weeks of pregnancy and has enabled many more women to have an abortion earlier in pregnancy.

Clare Murphy, BPAS Chief Executive, said: “The current permission for telemedical abortion has enabled access to care at the earliest gestations, and has been particularly beneficial for women in some of the most complex circumstances. These are women who may struggle to access in-clinic care, because of distance and reliance on public transport, who are in abusive relationships where travel to a clinic may be impossible, or with precarious work or childcare arrangements that make taking a day off extremely difficult. In the absence of telemedical care and support, these women present to services later.”

Following a public consultation, the government is currently considering whether to revoke permission for telemedical abortion care. The charity is urging the Government to ensure access to telemedical abortion remains a permanent option for women, to ensure their needs are met as early as possible, and to absorb some of the pressure from already stretched services.

Increased need for services has increased waiting times, which increases the gestations at which women can access abortion. Women may require later, surgical care as a result. The lack of capacity to provide this care up to the legal limit of 24 weeks within the sector, which is affected by the same pandemic-related issues that affect the wider National Health Service, now means some women are forced to continue pregnancies against their will. These women are overwhelmingly in complex and challenging circumstances.

SOURCE: BPAS Press release, 3 November 2021 ; PHOTO: FSRH RCOG statement on telemedical abortion, 30 March 2020