Date Published: 21 September 2005

UK Chief Medical Officer concludes British Pregnancy Advisory Service did not break the law

Health News from the United Kingdom (UK).

The Chief Medical Officer's report into the handling of late abortion cases by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) (www.bpas.org) has been published by the UK Department of Health.

Following allegations by the Sunday Telegraph that BPAS was illegally sending women to Spain for late abortions, the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) was asked to investigate by the Secretary of State for Health. Sir Liam Donaldson concluded that BPAS has not broken the law, but did identify the use of insufficient procedures in its handling of late abortion cases.

The CMO criticised the BPAS for giving out the number of the Spanish clinic too readily and not giving appropriate advice to women seeking a late abortion. The CMO has concluded that BPAS should review the way they handle requests for late abortions. This includes:

  • revising their protocol for late abortion cases;
  • reviewing training needs for staff;
  • putting arrangements in place to ensure all calls concerning late abortions are passed to an experienced abortion counsellor; and
  • setting up a system for monitoring the quality of advice given by its call centre staff.

BPAS has been asked to provide the CMO and the Department of Health with details of how they propose to implement these recommendations by the end of October 2005. Following his investigation, the CMO concluded it is not in itself illegal to give out the contact details for overseas clinics. A woman is entitled to travel to another EU member state for an abortion.

The investigation has raised a number of important issues around access to abortion at all gestations, the training of staff in abortion service providers and the information available for women. As a result, the CMO has suggested a number of recommendations relevant to all abortion service providers. These include:

  • The development of a national best practice protocol for dealing with late abortion cases - to be adopted by the NHS and all independent sector abortion providers;
  • All abortion service providers (including Primary Care Trusts) should review training needs for late gestation cases to ensure women are dealt with by appropriately trained staff and ensure that all staff involved in commissioning and providing abortion services are familiar with the provisions of the Abortion Act 1967;and
  • Primary Care Trusts and abortion service providers should identify sources of delay in accessing abortion services and reorganise services so that all abortions can be carried out as early as possible. Primary Care Trusts should continue to work towards the performance indicator measuring the number of NHS funded abortions performed at under 10 weeks gestation.

Public Health Minister Caroline Flint said:

" I welcome these recommendations and am grateful to Sir Liam Donaldson for carrying out this thorough investigation. He has concluded that, on the evidence he has seen, BPAS has not committed an offence under the law and has therefore not broken the law.
_ The Department of Health has no reason to doubt that BPAS provides a good, safe and legal abortion service under the Abortion Act 1967 and therefore sees no reason why it should not continue to provide this service to women nor why primary care trusts should withdraw any contracts they have with BPAS.
_ We will now be working with the relevant professional organisations, the NHS and BPAS itself to ensure the Chief Medical Officer's wider recommendations are implemented. Progress will be monitored by the Department of Health and the Healthcare Commission.
_ We have always made it very clear that any independent sector clinic wishing to perform abortions has to be approved by the Secretary of State for Health under the Abortion Act and registered with, and regularly inspected by, the Healthcare Commission. This continues to be the case and any failure to comply with the Abortion Act or Care Standards Act 2000 can lead to a withdrawal of approval at any time.
_ The Chief Medical Officer has highlighted important areas where weak procedures need to be tightened up and we will ensure his recommendations are implemented. However, this does not mean the Government has any plans to change the law on abortion. It is accepted Parliamentary practice that proposals for amendments to the Abortion Act come from back bench members and that decisions are made on the basis of free votes
."

Source(s): UK Gov., Dept Health

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