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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 June 2007, 10:40 GMT 11:40 UK
Doctors back 'easier' abortions
By Nick Triggle
Health reporter, BBC News

A GP (picture: Science Photo Library)
Two GPs must currently give permission for an abortion
Doctors have called for a relaxation of the rules to allow women quicker access to abortions in early pregnancy.

The British Medical Association conference backed a motion calling for abortions to be approved by just one doctor, rather than the current two.

The call only covers terminations in the first trimester, effectively the first three months of pregnancy.

However, the Department of Health said there were no plans to modify the current legislation.

Why on earth should women seeking termination - often distressed and anxious - be faced with irrational barriers?
Dr Evan Harris

The vote at the conference in Torquay - passed by 67% to 33% - effectively means doctors want abortion to be carried out on an "informed consent" basis - assuming that one doctor explaining the pros and cons is enough.

This would make it as easy to obtain as other treatments.

However, BMA representatives rejected proposals to allow nurses and midwives to carry out terminations.

Risk to health

The 1967 Abortion Act currently requires women to satisfy two doctors that carrying on with the pregnancy represents a risk to their health.

But doctors said advances in medicine meant it was now riskier to carry on with a pregnancy than to have a first trimester termination, so all women met the criteria.

Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris, also a member of the BMA, proposed the changes to the conference.

He said: "Why on earth should women seeking termination - often distressed and anxious - be faced with irrational barriers?"

Abortions before the nine-week mark can be done using drugs, rather than surgically.

The BMA vote in favour of liberalisation of the abortion law flies in the face of medical and public opinion on the issue
Julia Millington
ProLife Alliance

But with waits of up to seven weeks in areas, some women are denied this option.

Dr Tony Calland, chairman of the BMA's medical ethics committee, said: "There are unnecessary waits and the move voted on would speed up the system.

"I think what this vote shows is that doctors feel the current act is outdated."

But he added if the law was changed there could "still be a bottleneck" while women wait for a doctor to become free to carry out the procedure.

Many doctors were opposed to the idea of allowing other health professionals to carry out abortions, and for them to take place in currently unapproved premises.

They argued that surgical terminations - still common in the first nine weeks of pregnancy - were highly complex.

David Pring, a consultant gynaecologist and member of the BMA's consultants committee, said: "Things can go wrong and it is often only an experienced surgeon who realises this."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said: "The government has no plans to change the law on abortion."

Mixed response

Anne Weyman, chief executive of the Family Planning Association, said: "There is no justification in making women seek the permission and approval of two doctors to have an abortion, so we are delighted that the BMA has voted in favour of removing this criteria.

"We are disappointed that the BMA has voted not to extend the role of performing abortion to other trained professionals and the premises where abortion takes place, as the evidence to support this change is clear."

Julia Millington, of the ProLife Alliance, said there was clear evidence that the UK already had abortion on demand.

She said 89% of abortions were performed within the first 13 weeks of pregnancy in 2006, with less than 1% performed because of a serious risk to the life or health of the pregnant woman.

"The BMA vote in favour of liberalisation of the abortion law flies in the face of medical and public opinion on the issue. Liberalisation of the law is the last thing we need."

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