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Tuesday, June 22, 1999 Published at 22:51 GMT 23:51 UK


GPs support easier abortion

GPs play a vital role in the abortion process

A majority of GPs would support changes in the law to make abortion easier for women, a survey has found.

The research revealed that 60% of GPs surveyed would now support the introduction of abortion on request in the first trimester - or first 14 weeks - of pregnancy.

However, it also found that a significant minority of GPs may be actively working to delay or prevent women from accessing abortion services to which they are legally entitled.

The study, General Practitioners: Attitudes to Abortion, found that this minority of family doctors said they were against abortion, but refused to declare their conscientious objection.

The family planning agency Marie Stopes International (MSI), which carried out the research, says the GP's role is very important, as they are often the first point of contact for women seeking abortion services.

MSI says they also usually provide the first of two doctors' signatures, which are legally required for an abortion to take place.

Massive sea change

The survey findings - based on responses from more than 8,000 GPs - show a massive 'sea change' in GPs' opinions on the issue of abortion, since the last significant survey in 1973 by National Opinion Polls.

In the 1973 survey, only 24% of GPs supported the principle of changing the law to introduce abortion at the request of a woman.

Other key findings in the report include:

  • Eighty-two per cent of GPs describe themselves as 'pro-choice'
  • Eighteen per cent said they were anti-abortion
  • Seventy-six per cent of GPs thought women should be entitled to free NHS abortions
  • Eighty-five per cent thought GPs with a conscientious objection to abortion should declare their position to women
  • Ten per cent said there was no need to inform women of a conscientious objection
  • One in five of those against abortion said they still supported a woman's right to chose
  • More than a quarter of anti-abortion GPs said they did not believe they should have to tell women that they conscientiously objected to the practice

Encouraging and disturbing

MSI's Deputy Chief Executive, Helen Axby, said the organisation was both encouraged and disturbed by the findings in the report.

She said: "MSI is encouraged by the strength of support from GPs for reform, to introduce a modern law where the decision on abortion rests with the woman concerned - in consultation with a doctor.

"At the moment the woman is at the mercy of two doctors exercising discretionary powers.

"We are disturbed by the finding that a small, but significant minority of GPs may be imposing their own moral standards and values upon women, causing distress, delay and financial hardship."

Ms Axby said the report reinforced MSI's belief that abortion in the UK is a complete lottery. She described the current situation as "arbitrary, discriminatory and unfair".

"It's time to acknowledge the flaws in the 1967 Abortion Act and work towards a system which ensures every woman with a crisis pregnancy receives prompt, non-judgemental care and support."

Doctors urge sympathetic support

[ image: Dr John Chisholm said GPs must deal sensitively with women wanting an abortion]
Dr John Chisholm said GPs must deal sensitively with women wanting an abortion
The British Medical Association said GPs had a responsibility to provide sympathetic support and non-directive counselling for women seeking abortions.

Dr John Chisholm, chairman of the BMA's GP Committee, said: "Women who approach their doctors with an unwanted pregnancy will have thought long and hard about the choices that face them.

"If they are seeking termination, GPs have a duty to respond with sensitivity and to seek to do their best for their patient."

Dr Chisholm also stressed that it was unethical for a GP with a conscientious objection to abortion to delay referral to another practitioner.

Professor Mike Pringle, chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), said: "We support a woman's right to make considered decisions within the limits of the law and believe GPs should have the right to choose their stance as long as it does not affect a woman's right to choose or access services."

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