Scots forced to travel to England for abortions due to 'lack of care'

An investigation has found that women are travelling 700 miles due to NHS boards not carrying out the procedure in Scotland.

Women and teens forced to have abortions in England due to ‘neglect’ from NHS health boards in Scotland iStock
Some NHS boards 'will not carry out' abortions after 15 weeks in Scotland.

Women and girls are having to travel 700 miles to get an abortion in England as some NHS boards will not carry out the procedure after 15 weeks in Scotland.

Following an investigation by the Scotsman newspaper, it was found that The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) warned that 80 of its clients were forced to travel down south in 2020 and 2021 to undergo abortions.

Out of the 170 clients the charity treated between 2019 and 2021, five were under the age of 16.

Abortion is legal up to 24 weeks, but has become harder to access in Scotland as eight health boards do not carry out the procedure beyond 18 weeks, four have a limit of 20 weeks, while NHS Fife has a bar of 15 weeks and five days.

NHS England stats showed that between 2010 and 2020, 2,057 women resident in Scotland had abortions carried out in England or Wales, while in 2020 the figure was 123, and in 2019 some 90 women traveled down south.

One woman forced to make the journey to get an abortion at 20 weeks, branded provision in Scotland a “disgrace”.

She said: “The thought of women having to go through what I went through is a disgrace to Scotland, a country which so outwardly proclaims to be a progressive nation.”

BPAS warned the “gaping hole” in provision was denying many women a fundamental human right.

Rachael Clarke, chief of staff at BPAS, said: “There are women who are continuing pregnancies who would otherwise not want to.”

“We’re talking about children that are being sent over the border in some cases.

“Women who need abortions at later gestations are disproportionately likely to have additional vulnerabilities, due to drink and drug misuse or they may lead chaotic lives.

“There should be a centrally commissioned specialist service for surgical abortions up to 24 weeks’ gestation.

“We have pushed the government for this and absolutely nothing has been forthcoming.”

There were 127 abortions carried out at 18 weeks’ gestation or over in 2021 – the second lowest figure since records began in 1968.

Five years ago, the Scottish Government said it was working with NHS boards to look at improvements around the “complex area” of later gestation abortions but it has not commissioned or undertaken any analysis of the issue since then.

In 2014 a study commissioned and funded by the Scottish Government was explicit in how the lack of access to later abortions in Scotland had a detrimental financial and emotional impact on women.

The study said: “The burden of traveling to England presents one of the most significant barriers to later abortion for women, exacerbates an already potentially difficult experience, and contributes to abortion stigma and discrimination.”

Scottish Labour MSP Monica Lennon, convener of the Holyrood cross-party group on women’s health, said it was “shameful” and negligent.

She said: “Abortion healthcare in Scotland has been the victim of complacency and neglect for too long.

“It’s worrying that the Scottish Government failed to act on its own evidence from as far back as 2014.

“The burden of travelling to England is a major barrier for women and girls who need a later stage abortion, yet nothing is being done to address this.”

Correspondence disclosed last week by the government under freedom of information legislation shows it has discussed options for increasing provision for later stage abortions on “a number of occasions” with health boards.

But in its response to the FoI request, the government added: “While we have gathered information on boards’ services and discussed with them some of the issues faced, we have not specifically undertaken or commissioned an analysis of this.”

The Scottish Government’s women’s health plan, published last August, promised to improve access to abortion services, specifying a “medium term” action of providing mid-trimester abortion care locally or regionally.

An emergency summit on buffer zones and abortion care in Scotland is expected to convene later this month.

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: “The Healthcare Improvement Scotland Sexual Health Standards make clear that all boards should be able to offer abortions up to at least 20 weeks’ gestation.

“Where an NHS board cannot offer abortion services above 20 weeks’ gestation locally, they must work to provide an appropriate and person-centred care pathway for all patients seeking abortions up to the legal limit.

“Should any women require to receive a late stage abortion outwith Scotland for clinical and safety reasons, their care is paid for by NHS Scotland.

“These represent a very small proportion of the number of abortions from Scotland as the vast majority are taken forward at an earlier stage.

“However, we are working with boards to try and ensure that late stage services are established here so that all women up to 24 weeks can be provided as locally as possible.”