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Ethics briefings
  1. Martin Davies,
  2. Sophie Brannan,
  3. Eleanor Chrispin,
  4. Veronica English,
  5. Rebecca Mussell,
  6. Julian Sheather,
  7. Ann Sommerville
  1. British Medical Association, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Martin Davies, British Medical Association, BMA House, Tavistock Square, London WC1H 9JP, UK; mdavies{at}

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The Abortion Act: early medical abortion

In England, Wales and Scotland, the vast majority of abortions take place in the first trimester of pregnancy. In 2009, for example, 91% of abortions were carried out at under 13 weeks gestation for women resident in England and Wales.1 Early abortion opens up the opportunity for a woman to have a medical abortion rather than a surgical abortion. Medical abortion is considered to be less invasive and less expensive than surgical abortion, and is increasingly becoming the preferred method.1 The proportion of medical abortions to surgical abortions has doubled in the last five years with 52% of abortions being medical abortions under 9 weeks gestation in 2009.

A medical abortion typically involves taking mifepristone to block the hormones that help a pregnancy to continue, and then later on (usually 2 days later) misoprostol, which makes the womb expel the embryo/fetus, usually within 4–6 h. Current legislation requires that both sets of drugs are administered in an NHS hospital or approved place, but women can go home after taking the second dose of drugs to complete the abortion.

There has long been disagreement between the Department of Health and the British Pregnancy Advisory Services (BPAS) about what constitutes ‘any treatment for the termination of pregnancy’ under the Abortion Act 1967 (as amended by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990), specifically whether a woman taking the second set of drugs is considered to be undergoing the ‘treatment’ and is therefore required to be present in premises permitted under the Act.

At the end of 2010, BPAS went to the High Court to challenge the Department of Health's view that the legislation requires women to take both sets of drugs in an approved place. BPAS argued that ‘treatment’ stops at the point of prescription and women should be able to go home, …

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