Changes to abortion rules have “serious and life-changing consequences” for women, the Court of Appeal has heard.
The Government’s decision to alter policy is “one of the most significant amendments” in the last five decades of abortion law, according to lawyers for Christian Concern.
The faith group is pursuing legal action against the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) over its change to regulations, allowing women to have medical abortions at home following a phone or video consultation.
Christian Concern lost a High Court bid in May to bring a legal challenge over the Government’s decision, but has taken the case to the Court of Appeal.
The group argues that the Government’s decision went beyond the powers available under the 1967 Abortion Act and claims that allowing women to have terminations at home goes against the purpose of the Act, which was to prevent “backstreet” abortions.
At a remote hearing on Wednesday, Michael Phillips, representing Christian Concern, told three senior judges that the change in rules “is one of the most significant amendments in the last 50 years of abortion law”.
He added that it has “serious and life-changing consequences for the women involved” as well as for medical professionals and staff working at abortion clinics.
In written submissions to the court, Mr Phillips said the policy of the 1967 Act was “to ensure that abortions are carried out in a regulated environment, as a means of ensuring that all abortions are carried out with proper skill and in hygienic conditions”.
The barrister said discretion in approving places for abortion “must be exercised consistently with the purpose of the Act”.
He added: “This means that the Secretary of State is free to approve a class of places which are safe and hygienic (e.g. GP surgeries), but not a class of unregulated places, a significant proportion of which are inevitably unsafe and unhygienic (e.g. ‘pregnant woman’s home’, defined as ‘the place in England where a pregnant woman has her permanent address or usually resides’).
“In an extreme case, this may well include a tent under a railway bridge, in effect legalising abortions to take place in conditions similar to that seen before 1967, so called ‘backstreet abortions’.”
He said the amendment to abortion rules is “self-evidentially a backwards step and frustrates the Act’s purpose”.
Mr Phillips also argued that under abortion laws, a termination must be carried out by a registered medical professional, and that this is the not the case if a pregnancy is terminated by a woman taking a drug at home.
The Government is opposing the challenge and says the decision to change the rules fell within its “scope and power”.
In written submissions, Julia Smyth, representing the Government, said: “The legislation confers a broad discretion on ministers to approve a place or class of place where the termination of pregnancy could take place.
“If there is an implied requirement that the class of place be safe and suitable, that class of place need only be safe and suitable for the specific purpose permitted (namely, the taking of medication), and a woman’s home is, as a class, so suitable.”
She asked the court to dismiss the appeal.
The case centres on a decision 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 administered at a hospital or clinic following an appointment with a doctor.
Christian Concern announced plans to pursue legal action in April, after a double U-turn by the DHSC over abortion rules during the Covid-19 outbreak.
Ministers initially said women and girls would be allowed to take abortion pills at home and doctors to prescribe from their homes during the 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.
The Court of Appeal judges reserved their ruling to a later date.