These Are The Best And Worst Places In England To Need An Abortion
The Debrief: In some areas around the country abortion waiting times are increasing while demand remains the same. What's going on?
Today marks 50 years since the 1967 Abortion Act legalised abortion in the UK with the exception of Northern Ireland. It was one of the most significant pieces of legislation forever passed, giving women the fundamental right to reproductive autonomy by allowing them to choose when to go through with a pregnancy.
Half a century later, how well is the Act working? The Debrief revealed that the restrictions contained in the legislation might be having a knock-on effect on the time it takes for women to get an abortion across England.
Following a 4-month FOI investigation in which The Debrief requested abortion waiting times from Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs: the bodies which manage local NHS services) around England, to find out whether they were providing women with abortions within the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ recommended 10 working day (14 calendar day) time frame.
The Debrief can reveal that while abortion rates have remained fairly constant since 2012, at around 185,000 per year, the waiting time for the procedure is actually creeping up in some places.
Our data showed that the longest waiting time for a surgical abortion in 2016 was in Leicester, with an average wait of 22.7 calendar days. This is an improvement to the area’s 2012 waiting time (29.1 days), but the figures have been consistently high - more than 20 days - for both medical and surgical abortion since 2012.
However, the shortest waiting time last year was in Essex – that covers Basildon, Brentwood and the North East part of the region. Here the average waiting time was fewer than 10 days. Following close behind was Scarborough and Ryedale (9.3 days) and then South Devon and Torbay (7.3 days) also fell under the 10-day guideline. The data suggests that you can access early abortion in these places quickly, and their waiting times have stayed at a pretty constant rate since 2012 when I first requested data from them.
Between 2015 and 2016, 64% of CCGs recorded longer waiting times for surgical abortions than in 2014-15. The greatest increase in waiting times was in Telford and Wrekin and Shropshire, where there was a 12.4-day increase. Hull also recorded a stark jump in the space of a year, with average waiting times increasing by a total of 6.7 days, despite there actually being 86 fewer abortions in 2016 than 2015.
76% of CCGs in England recorded longer waiting times in 2016 than they did in 2013 despite the number of abortions which took place being slightly lower. Indeed, more than three-quarters of the groups which commission abortion service providers reported a rise in waiting times. For surgical abortions last year 64% of areas missed the suggested waiting time of 10 working days, while for medical abortions 26% waiting times of areas exceeded this timeframe.
There’s no doubt that having to wait unnecessarily for treatment while carrying an unwanted or problematic pregnancy is something no woman should have to do. So, why is this happening?
Professor Lesley Regan told The Debrief that the RCOG ‘believes that the current need for two doctors’ signatures to certify that a woman is approved to undergo an abortion causes unnecessary delays in women’s access to abortion services’. Indeed, she emphasised that there are ‘no other situations where either competent men or women require permission from two third parties to make a personal healthcare decision’. Professor Regan firmly believes that doctors should be allowed to ‘provide the assessment in the same way as when they treat their patients without the need to consult another doctor’.
Significantly, NHS Scotland announced today that the law will be changing there with immediate effect so that women can take prescribed abortion pills at home as opposed to in a clinical setting.
However, there is another factor at play here, as mentioned above the way abortion care is commissioned and delivered has changed. Professor Regan says this is ‘having an impact on doctors’ access to training and women’s access to services’. She added there is ‘low prestige and stigma which may be associated with abortion care’ and this is ‘affecting the morale within the profession’. In England and Wales, Professor Regan said, ‘two-thirds of abortions are performed in the independent sector, meaning junior doctors find it difficult to access training, as there are fewer NHS consultants working in abortion care to train and mentor them’. To address these issues, the RCOG has established an Abortion Task Force, which Professor Regan will be leading.
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