On 23 May, the Department of Health issued a Press Release announcing the publication of two new documents relating to abortion:
- Guidance in Relation to Requirements of the Abortion Act 1967; and
- Procedures for Approval of Independent Sector Places for the Termination of Pregnancy.
The former is new guidance “for all those responsible for commissioning, providing and managing service provision” which clarifies [our emphasis]:
- that abortion on the grounds of gender alone is not lawful;
- the expectation that two doctors, when certifying that an abortion meets the criteria set out in the Act, must consider the individual circumstances of the woman and be prepared to justify their decision;
- that it is good practice for at least one of the doctors to have seen the pregnant woman before reaching a decision about the termination;
- that pre-signing of statutory abortion certificates prior to consideration of a woman’s circumstances is not compliant with the Act; and
- that doctors have a legal duty to report all abortions to the Chief Medical Officer.
Apart from the last two bullet points, the practice and procedures are based upon non-statutory guidance rather than the statutory provisions and there appears to be no commitment to ensure that either is enforced more rigidly than at present.
The latter document was produced following the Department of Health consultation Procedures for the Approval of Independent Sector Places for the Termination of Pregnancy on which we posted earlier. The principal objections to the proposals within the consultation were summarized in the Christian Medical Comment post, Department of Health officials attempt to bring in nurse and home abortion through back door.
The Department of Health’s publications have been criticized by the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), “Government abortion guidance ‘weak’ and ‘fails to uphold law’”, more strongly by the Christian Institute, “Biggest abortion liberalization confirmed in new guidance”, and others. In its new guidance to healthcare professionals, the Department of Health quite correctly states that:
“The guidance does not, and indeed cannot, change the law in relation to abortion, which is governed by the criminal law and the Abortion Act and is ultimately a matter for Parliament and the courts to determine. However, the intention is to provide support for doctors by setting out how the law is interpreted by the Department of Health.”
However, it continues
“More detailed guidance for health professionals on abortion is also available from the General Medical Council (GMC), British Medical Association (BMA), Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN),”
and readers will recall the Director of Public Prosecution’s assessment of the BMA guidance stating that its treatment of gender-specific abortion was “far from clear”. Without changes to the legislation or guidance with statutory authority, combined with a commitment to enforce rather than monitor these provisions, there are clearly limitations as to what might be achieved by this new guidance.