Policy briefing

New RCN position statement on termination of pregnancy

College responds after members support call for decriminalisation

College responds after members support call for decriminalisation

Picture: iStock

Essential information

More than 200,000 terminations were carried out in England, Wales and Scotland in 2016. Nine out of ten (92%) were at under 13 weeks’ gestation.

Abortions may be carried out using medication or a surgical procedure.

The criteria required for termination to be carried out in England, Scotland and Wales are set out in the Abortion Act 1967. In Northern Ireland, terminations are illegal except in very limited circumstances.

What’s new

The RCN has issued a new position statement that says terminations should be decriminalised and treated just like any other medical procedure.

The college acted after decriminalisation was backed by three quarters (74%) of almost 3,000 RCN members who responded to a survey last year.

The Abortion Act 1967 made terminations legal in England, Wales and Scotland up to 28 weeks’ gestation. The law was amended in 1990, when the limit on viability was reduced to 24 weeks.

There are exceptions to this limit, which include where it is necessary to save the life of the mother, where there is evidence of extreme fetal abnormality or there is a grave risk of physical or mental harm to the woman.

Potential benefits of decriminalisation listed in an RCN briefing document to members include removal of unacceptable stigma, giving women time to make the right decision, and removing the risk to healthcare professionals of prosecution.

The college also used its member briefing to present arguments against decriminalisation. These include a need for effective deterrents, the moral status of the fetus, and a view that the law should be reformed rather than scrapped.

The Royal College of Midwives and the British Medical Association have both already called for abortion to be decriminalised.

Any move towards decriminalisation should be based on the best evidence available, the RCN says. It would also require robust, regulatory and quality monitoring processes to protect the rights of women in accessing free, safe and effective services.

Carmel Bagness, the RCN’s
professional lead on women's

Expert comment

RCN professional lead for midwifery and women’s health Carmel Bagness, says: ‘This position statement is in keeping with, and does not alter, the RCN’s current position statement set out in the RCN Termination of Pregnancy (Induced Abortion) document from 2013. But it makes clear that the RCN supports the principle of decriminalisation, which would remove criminal liability when it is performed with the consent of the pregnant woman.

'This new position statement sets out how the college will ensure the views of members can influence any changes in the law to protect the rights of women and healthcare professionals and support the highest quality in care provision.

'Nurses and midwives should always remember that a primary principle of care, when it comes to termination of pregnancy, is to ensure a woman be given as much information as possible about available options, and the opportunity to discuss the risks and benefits as well as the emotional, psychological and social issues of continuing or not continuing her pregnancy.'

Implications for nurses

  • The RCN has not called for any change to gestational limits or to healthcare professionals’ right to conscientious objection
  • The college's position, that every woman should have the right to choose how to deal with a planned or unplanned pregnancy, remains unchanged
  • The RCN pledges to enhance current guidelines on conscientious objection in consideration of members who would not support decriminalisation
  • The college says it will influence developments in relation to changes to legislation and ensure quality monitoring processes are embedded in any changes to current legislation

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