Hundreds of doctors revolt over relaxing abortion laws 

Doctors have criticised the views of RCOG president, Professor Lesley Regan (pictured)

More than 600 doctors are in revolt over moves by one of the country’s top medical colleges to back abortion on demand.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) will today hold a secret vote to relax the laws governing the procedure.

Their president, Professor Lesley Regan, believes terminations should be treated the same as any other medical procedure. But although the RCOG represents 6,000 senior doctors in England specialising in childbirth and women’s health, only 33 members of the body’s council will take part in the behind-closed-doors ballot.

A group of 650 doctors have now signed a letter to Professor Regan objecting to her ‘extreme’ views. The practitioners – including those who do not belong to the RCOG – say it is ‘completely unacceptable’ that the majority of members are being denied the chance to vote.

They also warn that the college risks ‘severely damaging its reputation’ by adopting such a radical stance. If the council members vote in favour, the RCOG will formally back decriminalising abortions and lobby the Government for a change in the law.

It will join two powerful medical bodies which have already come out in favour –the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Midwives. The Daily Mail has seen extracts from today’s letter, which has been sent to Professor Regan at the RCOG. Between 30 and 40 doctors who have signed it are members of the college, the remainder specialise in other fields of medicine.

Last week Professor Regan said that women seeking abortions should only have to obtain consent from one doctor, just as if they were having a bunion removed. 

Dr Ronald Jameson, a member of the RCOG from Huddersfield, said a new policy on terminations would ‘almost certainly bring abortion much closer to being a free for all’.

He added: ‘I firmly believe that the RCOG should be able to vote, and only then will the membership be clear just what the doctors’ vote represents.’

Dr John Etherton, a GP and RCOG member from Lewes, East Sussex, said the move would ‘open up the gate for easy abortion up to birth’.

He added: ‘It sounds very benign to say let’s decriminalise a procedure, it sounds acceptable, but the immediate implications are that it opens the gate for infanticide. That’s very clear.’

The RCOG has made it clear that the move would not allow abortions to be carried out any later than 24 weeks.

The current law – the 1967 Abortion Act – states abortions are illegal without consent from two doctors. Both must agree that continuing the pregnancy would be harmful to the woman’s physical or mental health, or that of the unborn child.

What the law says now 

Britain’s 40-year-old abortion law requires two doctors to agree to a termination on ‘medical grounds’.

Both must say the abortion is necessary to prevent ‘grave, permanent’ physical or mental damage.

But campaigners say the law is only being followed ‘loosely’ by doctors. Women with no risk of physical harm can still have a termination if doctors claim her mental health is at risk.

There is also evidence that doctors have been ‘pre-signing’ blank abortion forms.

In March, the Mail exposed how doctors at abortion provider Marie Stopes were signing off terminations by phone. Some campaigners say legal restrictions encourage women to buy illegal abortion pills online.


The ballot will decide whether the College should formally back ‘total decriminalisation’ allowing consent from just one professional. A vote in favour would put pressure on the Government to overhaul the law.

The protest letter – which will be delivered to the Royal College this morning – urges Prof Regan to hold a ballot of all 6,000 members. It adds: ‘If these measures were to be implemented, it would mean the introduction of abortion for any reason, to at least 28 weeks and possibly up to birth.

‘It is completely unacceptable that all members of the RCOG have not been given the opportunity to vote on this significant change in policy and you have refused to release the wording of the motion until after the general council have voted on this motion. As doctors and medical students, we object to this new extreme position being forced upon members of the RCOG.

‘We represent a variety of positions on the issue of abortion, but believe this motion is out of keeping with both our duties as responsible professionals and the expressed wishes of British women with regards to the legality and regulation of abortion. This move to introduce a radical abortion law is being promoted by a small group of campaigners with extreme views on abortion.’

The letter continues: ‘Whilst they are entitled to hold the convictions they do we must not let them impose their agenda on the RCOG and risk severely damaging its reputation as a professional body.

‘We, the undersigned, wish to state publicly that any policy which seeks to remove abortion from its current legal framework does not represent us or our views.’

A spokesman for the RCOG said all 6,000 members had been consulted on today’s vote and told to share their views with their council representative.

Latest official figures show that 190,406 abortions were carried out in England and Wales in 2016, a slight fall on the previous year. But there has been a significant rise in terminations among women over 30, particularly unmarried ones.

Last week Prof Regan said it would be ‘perfectly reasonable’ for women to need one doctor’s consent to have an abortion. She compared the procedure to removing a bunion.

‘If you go and get your bunions sorted… you would go to a consultation … then you take a decision and the doctor who was competent to undertake the procedure would sign the form too, and that would go forward,’ she said. 

Bodies that backed change 

Two of the country’s most powerful medical bodies have already come out in favour of changing the law on abortions.

The British Medical Association – which represents two-thirds of the UK’s 280,000 doctors – voted in favour of legal reforms at its annual meeting in June.

Dr John Chisholm, chairman of the BMA’s ethics committee, said terminations ‘should be treated as a medical issue’ rather than a crime.

Some 69 per cent of doctors who were present at the ballot voted in favour and just 29 per cent against. The remainder abstained.

In May last year, the Royal College of Midwives announced it was in favour of decriminalisation even though chief executive Professor Cathy Warwick did not consult her 30,000 members beforehand. 

At the time she was also chairman of the country’s largest abortion provider, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, although she has since stood down. Many midwives claimed there was a clear ‘conflict of interest’. 

Prof Regan also said there had been a ‘shift’ in opinion among medical professionals about abortion, with many being in favour of decriminalisation.

Dr Peter Saunders, of the Christian Medical Fellowship, which represents Christian doctors, said the RCOG had an interest in removing abortion from criminal law because so many of its members practised it. 

‘How is this different from bankers asking for fraud to be decriminalised, taxi drivers seeking an end to speed limits, or tenants aiming to abolish rental contracts?’ he said.

‘Surely it is those who most stand to gain by a change in the law who should have least say over how it is framed.’

The vote is due to take place this afternoon but it may be pushed back until Saturday.

The RCOG said it supports the rights of women to access ‘safe, high-quality abortion care services’. A spokesman said: ‘The vote will not focus on gestational limits for abortion which should remain in place through the appropriate regulatory and legislative process.

‘Whatever the outcome of the vote, the College will continue to support those doctors with strongly held beliefs who consciously object to performing terminations.’  

This is about feminist dogma – not medicine

By Max Pemberton

Professor Lesley Regan is a highly regarded doctor

Professor Lesley Regan is a highly regarded doctor

Professor Lesley Regan is a highly regarded doctor, with more than 30 years of experience. She is also President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

Yet despite her expertise and esteemed position, I wonder if she has taken leave of her senses. She has just argued that having an abortion should be treated no differently to any other medical procedure, likening it to having a bunion removed.

But they are different, aren’t they? You don’t need to be a professor of obstetrics to know that a bunion is different to a foetus. The question of whether the foetus has rights and, if so, what those rights are and at what point they come into effect is incredibly complex and emotive.

It is something philosophers, ethicists, doctors, lawyers, theologians and many of the general public have grappled with for years. There is no simple answer, and it is beholden on someone of Professor Regan’s great office to at least acknowledge this fact, regardless of her personal opinion.

Let’s be clear here, her announcement is not to do with medicine. It’s a political statement — an alignment with a particular liberal ideology that states that abortion should be available on demand, no questions asked.

Current law states abortions are illegal without consent from two doctors. Yet there is a political movement that demands that all legal limitations on abortion are removed.

This demand was backed last year by the Royal College of Midwives’ chief executive Cathy Warwick. But it has profound implications. It means that the UK would join a tiny handful of countries — such as China and Vietnam — where abortion is legal on demand up until birth. When it comes to human rights, I’m never one to feel comfortable following China’s lead.

Although Professor Regan has stated she thinks the abortion limit should remain, many argue that the decriminalising of abortion will mean current safeguards will disappear and late-stage abortions will inevitably become more common. This makes me feel profoundly uneasy.

I am aware, of course, that if there is one topic in medicine guaranteed to generate controversy, it’s abortion. Its mere mention polarises opinion: for or against, pro-life or pro-choice. How has it come to this?

Let me say that I unreservedly support a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy, and have no moral objection to abortion per se. I am aware that not everyone will agree with me, but I have thought long and hard about this.

Indeed, while a medical student I assisted in terminations of pregnancy as part of my training. It was a carefully made and personal decision. While many of my fellow students decided against it, I thought that if I accept abortion should be permitted as a medical procedure, then I should know what it entails.

My objections to Professor Regan’s statements are not because I am closed-minded about abortion. They stem from the fact that I feel the issue has been hijacked by a political movement founded on ideology and dogma. It is wholly disingenuous of Professor Regan to present the issue as simply a legal quirk from a bygone era that can be quickly sorted out with the swish of the legislative pen.

Abortion for a great many people is a profound question and one that deserves our respect. To them, terminating a pregnancy can never be regarded in the same way as removing a piece of deformed bone, to use Professor Regan’s crass example. It is destroying a life.

But ethical questions aside, from a medical perspective, an abortion is not a procedure without risk. There is a range of possible complications, from infections through to life-endangering haemorrhage.

Of course, most abortions are safe, but Professor Regan is making them appear quick, simple and harmless when they are not.

And I fear that, by sending out this message, it will lead to people being more blasé about contraception because they know that they can get a quick abortion if necessary.

And as I said, I am also worried that if abortion is decriminalised, we could soon be seeing late-stage abortions on demand as the pro-choice lobby makes ever more strident demands.

I am not alone in this. As the Mail reveals today, 650 doctors have signed a letter to Professor Regan to object to her moves to put the weight of the College where she is President behind the campaign to decriminalise abortion. They argue that not only is the campaign ‘extreme’ but will lead to ‘termination on demand’ up to and possibly beyond 28 weeks gestation.

This brings me to what is surely a far more pressing issue than the decriminalisation of abortion, and one that the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists really should be focusing on.

When today’s abortion laws were written, there was a safe margin between the upper limit for termination and the age at which babies survived. But over the years, as medicine has advanced, that margin has become smaller and smaller.

We are now at the deeply unsettling stage where, in the same hospital, doctors are trying to save a premature baby born at, say 23 weeks, while a woman down the corridor is legally allowed to undergo an abortion on a foetus of the same gestation.

So, on the one hand, we throw considerable money and resources at trying to save a baby’s life, while on the other sanctioning another’s destruction.

The current legal limit for terminating a pregnancy is 24 weeks, although later abortions are allowed if there is grave risk to the woman’s life or evidence of severe foetal abnormality.

The vast majority of terminations occur at 13 weeks or before, with only a fraction — less than 2 per cent — occurring after 20 weeks. But, even so, this still accounts for about 3,000 terminations a year.

The laws surrounding medicine must be dynamic: they must be able to change and adapt to advances made — and there is a real argument for reducing the upper limit. What might have been appropriate in the past is no longer fit for purpose.

Surely this is what Professor Regan and her College should be focusing on. Yet it seems she is concerned not on the foetus’s survival but the woman’s right to choose.

One in three women in the UK will undergo a termination before the age of 45, so this issue resonates with many people on a profound level.

For feminists to politicise abortion in this way, and to insist that everything a woman wants she should get, regardless of the ethical issues, is nothing short of outrageous.