Abortion Rights Blog

The national pro-choice campaign

Bpas does not help women get “illegal” abortions

The real late abortion scandal is that women who are legally entitled to help are not getting it.
Ann Furedi, The Guardian, Wednesday October 13, 2004

“British Pregnancy Advisory Service helps women get illegal abortions,” the Sunday Telegraph announced this week. It was followed up with a five-page special investigation under the headline: “NHS-funded charity sends hundreds to Spain for terminations of healthy foetuses ‘up to 30 weeks’.”

Well, perhaps that would be a scandal, if it were true – but it isn’t. Bpas, of which I am chief executive, does not help women get “illegal” abortions, and it does not “send” women to Spain.

Each year, Bpas, Britain’s leading provider of abortion care, helps 50,000 women with abortions. We are also called by about 100 others who have passed the 24-week gestation limit. We tell them abortion is no longer a legal option in Britain. Most accept this and we advise on how to access antenatal care. But, a tiny number (and the figure is closer to dozens rather than the hundreds reported by the Sunday Telegraph) – for all manner of complex reasons – can’t imagine any other option.

There is no one reason why a woman requests a late termination. It might be that her husband has abandoned her; she might be close to the menopause and her periods so erratic she didn’t know that she was pregnant. She could be a teenager who put off telling anyone in the hope that the problem would go away. It’s not an easy option. It usually involves a medical induction and a woman giving birth to a dead baby. It is the hardest of hard decisions.

Faced with people who are so driven they will pay any price, travel any distance, do anything to end an unwanted pregnancy, our staff do what they can to help within the law. They give telephone numbers of clinics that provide safe, legal abortions in countries with laws different to our own. We do not “refer” women to foreign clinics, we do not “vouch” for these clinics, and nor do we have financial links with them. All we do is: confirm that such clinics exist and that we believe they provide safe services. And we give contact numbers when women want them. This has been Bpas practice for more than a decade: it is not a secret, and it has never raised the proverbial eyebrow.

It can come as no shock to policy makers that some British women travel overseas for abortions. Before the abortion pill was legal in the US, American women came to use it in Britain. Now some British women travel to the US (and to Europe) for late abortions that are not permitted here.

In the light of this, it is surprising that the health secretary John Reid has reacted to the Sunday Telegraph’s trumped-up expose by agreeing that an investigation into the matter is appropriate. But, although questionable, it is not unwelcome. We are more than happy to cooperate with any investigation into the treatment of women with late gestation “problem pregnancies”.

You may think it is right for us to provide international contact details, or you may think it is wrong. But it has never been alleged, until now, that it is illegal for us to provide such information. So, let us establish, once and for all, beyond question whether British women have a lawful right to information about foreign services, and whether they have a lawful right to travel to obtain services abroad that are not legal in their country of origin. This, after all, has been central to the Irish abortion debate for the last decade.

And let government ministers also pay attention to the real scandal that’s going on here. The real “late” abortion scandal is that women legally entitled to late abortion care here cannot get it – because there are not enough appointments to go round. Bpas provides more than 80% of procedures after 20 weeks because other providers have opted out of providing a difficult service. It is hard to recruit doctors, nurses and midwives to work in abortion. At Bpas we struggle to maintain an unpopular service that, we believe, women need – if we didn’t, how many more women would feel forced to travel abroad?

The Sunday Telegraph editorial this week claimed that Bpas “views the provision of abortion through crusaders eyes” and cites as evidence my personal view that no recent scientific developments in our understanding of the foetus have changed women’s need for late abortion services. I confess: personally, I believe that women should have access to abortion as early as possible and as late as necessary. But Bpas, the organisation that I am privileged to run, is an abortion provider, and not a campaigning organisation. We do our best to provide a safe and sympathetic service within the law, and to relieve the distress of women with unwanted pregnancy. I wonder if the Sunday Telegraph has a similar moral compass.

Ann Furedi is chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (Bpas)