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News headlines about abortion - "100 women and girls arrested for illegal abortion", "outrage at jail sentence for woman who took abortion pills later than the UK limit"

Abortion in the news – what you need to know 

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) has issued guidance to medical staff that they should not report someone to the police if they are concerned that the person may have broken abortion law. 

This comes after several cases of women being investigated for illegal abortion, some of which have led to prosecution. The cases mainly relate to people taking abortion medication after the legal limit of 24 weeks. While they are rare, it’s shocking to see prosecutions happening. 

It is against medical ethics to break patient confidentiality unless it is either in the public interest and will protect another person, or it is in the patient’s interest and will protect them from harm. 

The RCOG is a medical body representing doctors who work in women’s health and obstetric care. Its guidance makes clear that it does not believe it is in the patient or public interest to report someone who has been desperate enough to end a pregnancy after 24 weeks, or who has experienced miscarriage or stillbirth. This view is supported by 60 other organisations and individuals. 

 Should I be worried about accessing abortion? 

The vast majority of abortions in the UK are carried out very early in pregnancy, with a small proportion provided after 12 weeks. As long as people access an abortion in an NHS clinic via their GP or an abortion provider working for the NHS such as BPAS, MSI or NUPAS (and take the medication in the timeframe agreed and as instructed) abortion is very safe and completely legal. 

If you are not sure of the number of weeks you are pregnant you can have an ultrasound at a clinic which will date your pregnancy and you can be told your options for abortion if that is what you want. 

If you or anyone you know is distressed about a pregnancy at a late stage it is important to talk to a health professional about options. If it is too late to have an abortion there is help and support for managing the last few weeks of pregnancy and deciding what to do next. 

What if i experience bleeding in pregnancy or after an abortion? 

Ensuring you get the care and reassurance you need is always a priority.

If you are concerned about excessive bleeding, worsening abdominal pain or a high temperature following an abortion you should always seek help. Abortion providers will give you information on what is normal and when and how to get medical help; and most services provide a helpline to call if you need advice. 

If you are worried about pain and bleeding in pregnancy or think you may be experiencing miscarriage or stillbirth it’s important to get help as soon as possible. 

What if I am questioned when I go to hospital? 

In the event that you do find yourself being questioned when you go to hospital, here are some things to remember: 

  • If you are worried that you have taken abortion pills too late in pregnancy, you do not have to discuss your abortion or why you are bleeding. 
  • If you go to hospital experiencing miscarriage or stillbirth, you do not have to share with clinical staff any (perfectly normal) mixed feelings or fears you have had about being pregnant. 
  • You need to give your consent to have blood samples taken for testing. Healthcare professionals must make it clear why they want to take samples and you can agree or disagree to this. They are not allowed to take samples without your consent. 

We want to reassure everyone that it is extremely rare that you will be investigated for having an abortion or experiencing miscarriage or stillbirth. 

Why are prosecutions happening now?  

Abortion that is not carried out in line with the 1967 Abortion Act and later legislation is still a criminal offence in England, Scotland and Wales under the Victorian 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. The recent cases mainly relate to people taking abortion medication after the legal limit of 24 weeks.  

A small number of people have taken legally prescribed pills too late in pregnancy – effectively breaking the law. It’s also currently easier than ever to buy abortion pills online that are not regulated or allowed in UK law.   

As a result of these cases some medical staff are treating an even wider group of patients with suspicion, including those experiencing miscarriage, stillbirth or unexpected delivery. 

Brook would like to see an end to all criminalisation related to abortion and we are fighting to make this happen.  

This 160-year-old abortion law only ever results in the prosecution of people who are at their most desperate and vulnerable (and may not even have broken the law). 

We want to repeal this ancient law. We need to modernise our approach to abortion to ensure that anyone who needs one can have a safe, legal abortion, and that provision is allowed to keep up with medical and technical advances; always increasing the proportion of abortions that can take place as early as possible and as straightforwardly as possible.  

Meanwhile we hope this new guidance from the RCOG ensures that there are no more investigations of people experiencing pregnancy loss, or prosecutions of people for ending their own pregnancy. 

Read the full guidance

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