Weeks of waiting and appointments 250 miles away: abortion services in the UK are in crisis

Written by Amy Beecham

A report by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists published in November said women accessing abortions in many areas are “being denied the rights they should expect from the NHS constitution”.

Ever since the shocking repeal of Roe v Wade in the United States in June 2022, abortion rights have become a firm talking point on theglobal political agenda. We’ve watched as states such as Kansas hosted historic referendums on reproductive rights, overwhelmingly voting to uphold the state’s constitutional right for women to access abortion. We’ve heard celebrities such as Halsey and Uma Thurman speak bravely about how being able to have an abortion saved their life.

But reduced access to safe and legal abortion is a problem on home soil too. 

Despite some recent victories, such as buffer zones around abortion clinics in the UK to protect patients from protestors and at-home abortions being made permanently available, as Women’s Equality Party leader Mandu Reid told Stylist, “Abortion access is not a guarantee in any country of the UK. In England, Scotland and Wales, it is still embedded in criminal code, only accessible for women who fit specific criteria and can secure the permission of two doctors. And even where abortion is legal, it is still subject to ideological attacks and manipulation.”

Last year, Conservative MP Danny Kruger made a series of terrifying comments when he argued that women shouldn’t have “an absolute right” to bodily autonomy when it comes to pregnancy.

And now, a report by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists published in November has said that the commissioning for abortion care and insufficient funding of services had resulted in poorer standards of care for women and “marked variations across the UK, with women accessing abortion in many areas being denied the rights they should expect from the NHS constitution”.

Because of funding and staffing pressures, experts are now warning that the UKis facing a “crisis point” in abortion provision, with rising demand and restricted access to care in many areas putting unprecedented strain on already struggling NHS services.

Healthcare professionals are describing a “terrifying” state of affairs in which women are travelling hundreds of miles for appointments or waiting several weeks before they are seen.

As Dr Jonathan Lord, director of MSI Reproductive Choices UK, told The Guardian’s Today In Focus podcast: “There is no doubt we are seeing absolutely unprecedented levels of demand at the moment. All providers are reporting they are busier than they have ever been.”

A record 214,869 abortions took place in England and Wales in 2021, according to government data, with the rise being driven by “the economic downturn, the cost of living crisis and the ability to access good quality contraception” via GPs and sexual health services, which have been affected by the wider NHS crisis.

In response to the warnings, the government has said that it “recognises there is more work to do to improve women’s reproductive health” and that “plans for sexual and reproductive health will be set out later this year, including ensuring women can continue to access robust and high-quality abortion services”.

But amid a cost of living crisis and national recession where women are already being disproportionately affected, increased funding and real change – like establishing access to abortion as a human right – cannot come soon enough.

Images: Getty

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