A number of notable events have taken place in Britain over the past couple of weeks. Lockdown regulations have eased to allow indoor venues to open and ‘cautious hugs’ to be exchanged; in Scotland, a crowd of football hooligans went on the rampage, celebrating a team win by screaming anti-Catholic propaganda and getting into confrontations with the police; at Eurovision, the UK got its usual hammering from judges.
And in London, unreported and unnoticed, doctors were banned from saving lives.
You read that correctly. Two Catholic doctors (who have asked not to be named) with unblemished records of service have been severely reprimanded by the General Medical Council for providing abortion pill reversal treatment. They have had sanctions placed against them and been banned from saving any more babies. It is not the first time in British legal history that doctors have been prohibited from saving life; the redefinition of the provision of food and fluids as medical treatment (as opposed to basic care) forces doctors under certain circumstances to dehydrate their patients to death. But the injustice done to these two doctors constitutes an egregious attack on human life and – ironically – on the very notion of reproductive choice.
Abortion pill reversal treatment is not a new concept and has been practiced in the US for years, promoted largely (but not exclusively) by pro-life groups who have long recognized the need to help women who regret initiating the chemical abortion process. Chemical abortion involves the taking of two pills twenty-four hours apart. It is a psychologically and emotionally exhausting process for a woman; unlike surgical abortion, the woman performs the abortion on herself, initiating the entire process and very often having to deal with the consequences alone.
While chemical abortion remains less common in the US than surgical abortion, largely because it carries more risks, in Britain, chemical abortion has been aggressively promoted for years as a ‘convenient’ alternative to surgery. A cynic might point out that chemical abortion is certainly more convenient for abortion providers, requiring far less involvement by doctors at a time when most facilities face an ongoing recruitment crisis. The fact that 500 women a month require medical assistance after taking abortion pills does not appear to concern an industry built on the claim that women’s lives matter.
Lockdown has seen the introduction of so-called DIY abortions, in which abortion pills are sent directly to women’s homes rather than being taken in a clinical setting. The 1967 Abortion Act states that abortions may only be carried out in licensed facilities, but lockdown has been used to get around this restriction, causing a massive spike in home abortions.
The Catholic Medical Association was first approached back in 2014 about the possibility of promoting abortion pill reversal in Britain. Pro-life groups were receiving calls from distraught women who had taken the first pill and were desperate to halt the process. In the absence of readily available doctors to prescribe the progesterone treatment, pro-life groups were forced to send the women to Harley Street clinics where treatment might cost over a thousand pounds – an impossibly large sum of money for a needy pregnant woman.
Pro-life groups often provided the funding themselves rather than see a woman left with nowhere to turn, but contrary to popular belief, crisis pregnancy centers in the UK are not well-funded and groups struggled to provide the financial assistance needed to save a baby’s life. Members of the CMA were initially highly skeptical about claims that progesterone treatment really could reverse the effects of the abortion pill, but the topic was introduced again in 2018 at a Catholic Medical Association conference. As a result, the CMA wrote to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) and the Royal College of GPs but received predictably negative responses. The RCOG stated that it could not support an unlicensed treatment. This is a nonsensical argument as the RCOG advocates the use of Misoprostol in abortion, which is licensed in the UK for management of peptic ulcer disease not chemical abortion, and Methotrexate for the medical management of ectopic pregnancy, when it is licensed for use in some inflammatory disorders but not ectopic pregnancy.
The CMA responded, answering the criticisms of the RCOG, but they received no answer. Undeterred, they wrote to the General Medical Council, stating their intention to offer help to women who regretted initiating the abortion process. The GMC responded in broadly supportive terms, stating that they could not comment on clinical scenarios but affirming that all patients had a right to know about alternative treatments. That being the case, progesterone treatment could not be regarded as illegal. Nevertheless, it proved difficult to find doctors – even committed pro-life doctors – prepared to become involved. There was fear about the lack of official backing and no doubt also the fear of standing up against a powerful abortion lobby. The abortion industry guards its financial interests jealously; no one with an interest in the debate has forgotten the fate of two Catholic midwives who refused to supervise abortions. They were hounded through the courts, with abortion chain BPAS among their most vociferous opponents and eventually lost their right to conscientious objection after a lengthy legal battle.
Two doctors eventually became the UK point of contact for the US abortion pill reversal website. Typically, the woman would turn to the internet, find the US website and speak with a nurse who, with their consent, would send one of the UK doctors a message asking if they could help. In all, the doctors took ninety-four calls. Around a third either decided against the treatment or did not pick up the prescription, usually because of pressure from boyfriends. There were two hoax calls. The doctors were scrupulously honest with the women who came to them, explaining the risks and warning them that the chances of saving the baby were around 50/50. They remained in close contact with the women during the course of their progesterone treatment and usually for months afterwards.
What the doctors did not know was that, back in January, a complaint was made against them to the GMC. Then, in April, the Daily Mail tabloid newspaper did a hatchet job on the Catholic Medical Association, claiming that Catholic doctors were promoting a dangerous and ineffective treatment that was putting women’s lives at risk. The two doctors were only told about the formal complaint three months after the event, when they were summoned to a hearing. This gave them just ten days to put together their legal defense, with a request for more time being declined.
The major objections to abortion pill reversal treatment are the perceived inefficiency of progesterone and claims that the treatment is dangerous. According to opponents of abortion pill reversal, babies are saved in around 25% of cases, while practitioners put the success rate at more like 50%. Even if the lower figure were possible to substantiate, the same argument could be used to ban IVF, as the average success rate for IVF stands at only 25-30%, and those figures tend to exclude the far higher failure rate among older women. But then, the IVF industry is powerful and highly lucrative, its top practitioners being among the wealthiest doctors in Britain.
The safety argument is particularly weak and contradictory, much of it based upon flawed studies. Mitchell Creinin, a vocal opponent of abortion pill reversal treatment, published a study in January 2020 which appeared to prove that the treatment is dangerous and ineffective. He claimed to need only forty women to take part in the study, when clinical trials typically involve hundreds or even thousands of participants. In the end, only ten women took part in the study, five receiving progesterone, five receiving a placebo. A supposedly conclusive study involved just ten participants and was called off when three women required medical assistance for bleeding.
What was not widely reported was that 4/5 of the women in the progesterone group were still pregnant fifteen days into the study, suggesting that the treatment is more effective than initially believed. Perhaps more significantly, of the three women who experienced bleeding, two were in the placebo group, including the one out of the three who required a blood transfusion. If anything, this extremely limited study proved only one thing – that progesterone treatment is safer for women than the current advice given to women who regret taking the first pill, that they should refrain from taking the second pill and ‘wait and see.’ The wait and see approach may leave a woman at genuine risk of haemorrhage with neither the potentially protective effects of the progesterone nor the misoprostol.
As supporters of abortion reversal treatment are at pains to point out, abortion pills can cause hemorrhage, but progesterone does not. Women have died and will continue to die from chemical abortion, but there is no strong movement within the medical profession to ban it. The ‘progesterone is dangerous’ argument leaves the profession in an impossible position. Are doctors really supposed to argue that progesterone is completely safe when used to treat miscarriage, that progesterone is completely safe when used in IVF, that there are no safety concerns surrounding the use of progesterone whatsoever, except when it is used to stop an abortion, when the prescription of progesterone by doctors immediately becomes dangerous and irresponsible?
The two Catholic doctors who acted as UK contacts for abortion pill reversal treatment worked voluntarily, quite often paying for the treatment out of their own pockets when women could not afford to pay for the prescriptions. The task of treating and supporting women in these situations is immensely time-consuming, with the doctors often spending between two and three hours a day working on abortion pill reversal, on top of a heavy workload at their hospitals. Now that they have been singled out, severely reprimanded, and forced to stop providing the treatment, women in the UK who regret taking that pill have been left without a vital lifeline. The only option left to them – besides the cold comfort of the abortion providers themselves – is a trip to a Harley Street clinic with extortionate fees many cannot hope to pay.
Ironically, it was the claim that rich women could circumvent the abortion ban by taking a trip to Harley Street that was used to convince a reluctant public of the need to decriminalize abortion in the 1960s. Where Harley Street once provided backstreet abortion to the wealthy, it now provides backstreet baby rescue to those who can afford it. Britain has come full circle.
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