By Michael Cook
Doctors in the UK will be able to give an opinion on whether a woman can have an abortion by Skype or telephone, according to a clarification from the Department of Health.
The new “guidance” makes it clear that UK law does not require either of the two doctors who must approve an abortion to have a face-to-face interview with a woman. They must consider her case, but they are not required to have personal contact with her.
The Department says that it is “good practice”, however, to see the woman, or at least to Skype her or speak to her on the phone.
On the other hand, the common practice of pre-signing or even photocopy certificates is clearly against the law. Doctors must form an opinion “in good faith” on the woman’s case.
The guidance was issued after two doctors were caught agreeing to do sex-selective abortions in a sting by the Telegraph. These are clearly illegal in the UK, as abortions can only be carried out if the woman’s physical or mental health is at risk. The Public Prosecutor decided not to prosecute and said that “there is no guidance on how a doctor should go about assessing the risk to physical or mental health, no guidance on where the threshold of risk lies and no guidance on a proper process for recording the assessment carried out”.
Is a Skype conversation sufficient to assess whether a woman’s mental or physical health is at risk? There is surprisingly little research on this topic. One Australian study found that most family doctors were not keen on using Skype for consultations because of “technical limitations, patient confidentiality concerns, [and] regulatory issues”. It is still too early to tell whether video-consultations could harm patients or increase the risk of litigation. Another study found that most doctors did not want to use video for serious conditions.
Josephine Quintavalle, of Comment on Reproductive Ethics, was scathing about the new guidance: “A telephone consultation to ensure authorisation – presumably with a pro-choice doctor – completely ignores the life-taking nature of abortion, makes a complete mockery of the original Act and would surely not be tolerated in any other branch of medicine.”
Editor’s note. This appeared at bioedge.org