Doctors call for easing of abortion laws

LONDON (Reuters) - Doctors have voted to press the government to ease restrictions on abortion, fuelling a debate over the issue that has been growing in Britain over recent months as the law allowing terminations marks its 40th year.

A pregnant woman is seen behind a curtain in a file photo. Doctors voted to press for the easing of restrictions on abortions at the British Medical Association's annual conference in Torquay on Wednesday. REUTERS/Mykhailo Markiv

They voted 67 percent in favour of removing the requirement for women to get the signature of two doctors to approve their termination in the first 13 weeks of pregnancy.

The vote took place at the annual meeting of their professional body, the British Medical Association (BMA), in Torquay.

The aim is to make it much simpler for women to have abortions in the first three months -- which account for nine out of 10 terminations.

The proposal would make seeking an early abortion no different from requesting any other medical procedure, in line with practice in many other European countries.

The doctors added a rider that this relaxation should not adversely affect the availability of late abortions up to the current 24-week limit, which would still need two approvals.

This will now become official BMA policy and executives will lobby parliament and the government to adopt the change.

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The BMA, which represents around 70 percent of doctors, was one of the major movers behind the government’s smoke-free legislation and hopes its medical opinion on abortion will prove equally influential.

But the government reiterated after the BMA vote that it had no plans to introduce any changes to the 1967 Abortion Act.

MPs will be able to discuss the issue later this year during the passage of the government’s Human Tissue and Embryos Bill, which is expected to attract both pro-choice and anti-abortion amendments from backbenchers.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), which conducts around 55,000 terminations a year, said the new BMA policy was “very good news for women.”

“There is no medical or public interest in retaining unnecessary legal obstacles for doctors and their patients,” said BPAS Chief Executive Ann Furedi.

But the ProLife Alliance said the doctors’ vote flew “in the face of medical and public opinion.”

“We would like to see the medical profession giving greater consideration, not to the politics of abortion, but to the medical and psychological impact on women,” said the Alliance’s political director Julia Millington.

Doctors at the conference voted against two related parts of the abortion motion.

These would have allowed nurses and midwives to carry out abortions and would have permitted terminations to be conducted outside licensed clinics, such as in GP surgeries or at the patient’s home.

A total of 193,700 women in England and Wales had terminations in 2006, a 3.9 percent rise on the previous year.