Christian faith group loses legal bid over abortion policy change

A Christian faith group has lost a legal challenge against the Government over changes to abortion rules during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Christian Concern brought a challenge at the High Court against the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) over its decision to amend abortion rules and allow women to have early medical abortions at home following a phone or video consultation.

The group argued that the decision to alter abortion policy “usurps proper parliamentary procedure” and would put women’s lives at risk.

But senior judges rejected the case, saying Christian Concern’s grounds for legal action “are not properly arguable”, and refused permission for a full judicial review.

In a ruling on Tuesday, Lord Justice Singh, sitting with Mr Justice Chamberlain, said: “The issue of abortion raises questions of ethics and social policy on which many people have strongly held views, which are sometimes diametrically opposed and irreconcilable.”

The judge said those questions were not for the courts to determine, adding that the role of the court is “to determine the lawfulness of the Secretary of State’s decision, nothing else.”

Christian Concern said it intended to appeal against the judgment.

The case centred on a decision made by the Government in March to allow women to take both drugs needed for an early medical abortion at home.

Under previous rules, only the second drug could be taken at home, with the first taken at a hospital or clinic following an appointment with a doctor.

Christian Concern argued the change in policy was unlawful, made without proper parliamentary scrutiny and unsafe for pregnant women.

Michael Phillips, barrister for Christian Concern, told the court: “Women’s lives have been put at risk because of this amendment.”

He added: “This is not just about abortion procedures to be followed in the pandemic, it is about the usurping of proper parliamentary procedure.”

In court documents, Mr Phillips said the Government had failed to fully take into account factors such as the physical and psychological risks for women, the risk of women being coerced into an abortion, the risk of a woman taking abortion drugs prescribed for another person, and the risk that they will be taken outside the 10-week gestation limit.

Mr Phillips said the decision “represents a very significant change of the substantive abortion law, with massive impact on the delicate balance of competing rights and interests involved in this issue”.

Julia Smyth, representing DHSC, said the Government had the powers to make the decision, which was “supported by ample evidence of its safety”.

She said the change to abortion policy was “made in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic”, in response to “mounting concern about the safety of patients and health practitioners if special arrangements were not introduced” and “emerging evidence including about clinic closures, caused by the pandemic, with the result that significant numbers of women would have been unable to access early medical abortion if action were not taken”.

Giving the court’s judgment, Lord Justice Singh said that approval of the change in policy “clearly falls within the powers conferred on the Secretary of State by Parliament” under the Abortion Act 1967.

He also dismissed Christian Concern’s argument that the decision was “irrational”, saying “it was plainly open to a reasonable Secretary of State to conclude that women who otherwise needed lawful and properly regulated abortion services would not be able to access them in the current emergency without this approval being made”.

In a statement after the ruling, Andrea Williams, chief executive of Christian Concern, said: “Today’s judgment is disappointing but not the end of the road.

“The evidence in this case clearly shows the abortion industry exerting overwhelming pressure on the Department of Health with misleading information.”

She added: “We intend to appeal this judgment in order to preserve our hard-won democratic freedoms which do not allow the Government to make dangerous changes to the law without proper evidence or parliamentary scrutiny.”

Christian Concern announced plans to pursue legal action last month, after a double U-turn by the DHSC over abortion rules during the Covid-19 outbreak.

Ministers initially said that women and girls would be allowed to take abortion pills at home and doctors to prescribe from their homes during the coronavirus pandemic.

Hours later, the statement was removed from the department’s website, with officials saying it was “published in error”.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock told MPs that abortion rules would not be changed as part of the response to the Covid-19 outbreak.

But, days later, the policy changed again, with the department saying those needing an abortion up to 10 weeks can use abortion pills at home after a consultation with a medical practitioner over the phone or on the internet.

The measures will last for up to two years.

Clare Murphy, director of external affairs at bpas (British Pregnancy Advisory Service), said: “We are pleased permission has been refused for this judicial review.

“Far from putting women at risk, this safe and simple measure has protected women’s health during this unprecedented health crisis.

“For women who cannot travel to a clinic because of underlying health conditions or those living with coercive partners or family members who will not let them leave their homes, being able to access treatment in this way can quite simply be life-saving.”

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Categories: Abortion, Christian Concern, Christian faith group, COVID-19, News