RCOG Challenges Outdated Abortion Laws With New Reporting Guidelines

Amidst a surge in prosecutions related to abortions, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has issued new guidance, asserting that healthcare professionals should abstain from reporting suspected illegal abortions to the police. Here’s the full story. 

Abortion Decriminalisation 

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) in the UK has made a landmark move challenging the legal landscape surrounding abortion. The new guidance issued by the RCOG asserts that healthcare professionals should refrain from reporting suspected illegal abortions to the police.

Dr. Ranee Thakar, the president of the RCOG, emphasised the need to reassess “outdated and antiquated” abortion laws, arguing that they leave women vulnerable to criminal investigations.

While abortion is not as contentious a topic in the UK as in the US, this intervention, announced on Monday, is expected to fuel discussions on the decriminalisation of abortion. 

Prosecutions Under Scrutiny

The RCOG’s guidance comes against the backdrop of a concerning surge in investigations and prosecutions related to abortions since 2022. At least six women have faced court proceedings, with dozens more under investigation for allegedly terminating pregnancies outside legal requirements.

This is a dramatic increase in prosecutions, as only three women were prosecuted in the previous twenty years. There were some detractors to the new guidance, such as the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, who expressed concerns, stating that advising healthcare workers against reporting abortions could erode public trust in the health service and the judicial system.

Abortions in England currently require approval from two doctors and must occur within the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. However, prosecutions have increased, leading to high-profile cases like that of Carla Foster, who faced imprisonment for procuring her own abortion at 32 to 34 weeks’ gestation in 2020.

However, following a public outcry, she was released. More recently,  Bethany Cox was cleared of the same charge, but three more women are slated to appear in court this year.

RCOG Guidance 

The RCOG’s guidance, developed in collaboration with the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare, the British Society of Abortion Care Providers and the Faculty of Public Health, emphasises that healthcare professionals are not legally obligated to report women who have abortions to the police.

This further underscores the principle that disclosures without consent are not in the interests of the patient, the provider or the public. The guidance also highlights the importance of justifying any disclosure, and the prohibition of providing blood tests or samples to law enforcement without consent or a court order.

The legal framework surrounding patient data confidentiality is a critical aspect addressed in the RCOG’s statement. The law prohibits health staff from disclosing patients’ data without consent.

The statement clarified, “a healthcare [worker] must abide by their professional responsibility to justify any disclosure of confidential patient information or face potential fitness-to-practice proceedings.”

Public Interest vs. Patient Safety

The RCOG contends that unless a statute explicitly requires reporting (e.g., female genital mutilation), healthcare professionals should prioritize patient safety over reporting to the police.

The guidance aims to ensure that healthcare workers understand their obligations and the potential consequences of breaching patient confidentiality. Dr. Jonathan Lord, co-chair of the RCOG abortion taskforce, emphasised “We deal with the most vulnerable groups who may be concerned about turning to regulated healthcare at all, and we need them to trust us.”

Dr. Lord expressed the RCOG’s primary concern about the substantial increase in investigations, asserting that they cause “life-changing harm to women and their wider families.”

He highlighted the deeply traumatic experience for women facing investigations after experiencing pregnancy loss, emphasising the distress caused by the suspicion and the potential for public exposure and imprisonment.

Government Response 

The Crown Prosecution Service insists that such cases are rare and treated with sensitivity. At the same time, a government spokesperson stated, “It is important that all women have access to safe and legal abortions on the NHS, which now includes taking abortion pills at home.

We understand this is an extremely sensitive issue, and we recognise the strongly held views on all sides of the discussion.” The RCOG’s guidance signals a potential shift in the healthcare approach to abortion, aiming to protect women from undue scrutiny while also securing their mental, physical and reproductive health.

The post RCOG Challenges Outdated Abortion Laws with New Reporting Guidelines first appeared on Pulse365 Limited.

Featured Image Credit: Shutterstock / New Africa.

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