LONDON — A publicly funded abortion agency in the United Kingdom has been accused of flagrantly breaking the law by referring British women to Spain for late-term abortions.
The Sunday Telegraph reported Oct. 10 that an undercover reporter was referred by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service to the Ginemedex abortion clinic in Barcelona. When the Telegraph reporter contacted the clinic by phone, she was offered the chance to abort her 26-week-old unborn child.
Staff at the Barcelona clinic agreed to abort her healthy baby without asking for any reason, admitting that they “play with the law, so it's not completely illegal.”
According to the London newspaper, “Extensive covert video and audio recordings exposed a horrific underground industry in which women carrying healthy fetuses beyond the 24-week legal cutoff and who want to end their pregnancies for ‘social’ reasons, travel to an abortion clinic in Spain on the recommendation of BPAS. The organization refers them there as a matter of ‘policy.’”
Abortion in Spain was legalized in 1985, and it is nominally subject to much stricter limits than Britain's law, which allows abortions with few restrictions up to 24 weeks after conception. In Spain, abortion is permitted up to 12 weeks gestation in the case of rape and up to 22 weeks when there is a risk of serious mental or physical handicap to the baby or of psychological injury to the mother. After that, it is permitted only when the pregnancy poses grave medical danger to the mother.
To get around those requirements, Ginemedex staff “repeatedly told undercover reporters that they falsify paperwork to say that the mother is suffering a ‘gynecological emergency,’” The Sunday Telegraph reported.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service performs around a quarter of all abortions in Britain each year. Three-quarters of those are funded by British taxpayers through the National Health Service. It carries out around 2,000 abortions at between 20 to 24 weeks gestation each year, the majority of all abortions at that stage.
Ann Furedi, the service's chief executive, defended her organization's policy of referring women seeking even later-term abortions to the Spanish abortion facility. “There is nothing we are doing that is unlawful,” she said. “We are simply providing women with international contacts to clinics that can provide them with abortion services.” About 100 women a year who are beyond the legal limit of 24 weeks contact the service, Furedi added. “The vast majority go on to have babies, but there are some who are absolutely desperate and beg for information about where else they can get help,” she said. “All we're saying is that when a woman can't get treatment that's legal in this country, she may be able to travel for treatment elsewhere.”
However, The Sunday Telegraph investigation details a very different picture of the relationship between the British service and the Spanish abortion facility. “Ginemedex staff confirmed their ‘very close’ relation-ship with BPAS and said that eight out of 10 patients were British, mostly referred via BPAS,” the newspaper said.
Jimena, a worker at the Barcelona clinic, told two undercover reporters who went to the clinic that BPAS specifically refers women seeking late-term abortions there because the British agency knows that Ginemedex does not comply with Spain's 22-week limit on abortions.
“We are in very, very close contact with BPAS. We have contact with Carolyn Phillips (the agency's director of operations),” Jimena said, adding, “You can only have a termination up to 22 weeks and here we can do more than 22 weeks, so BPAS basically send us all the patients over 22 weeks.”
In a telephone interview with The Sunday Telegraph, Phillips initially denied any link with Ginemedex but later admitted that phone operators are instructed to provide the Spanish clinic's phone number. When told that Ginemedex staff admitted falsifying paperwork to make late-term abortions appear legal, Phillips abruptly hung up, the newspaper reported.
Paul Conrathe, the human-rights lawyer who represented Joanna Jepson, the Anglican curate who led a campaign to prosecute the doctor who aborted a 26-week-old fetus with a cleft palate, said the agency's actions could constitute a breach of the Offenses Against the Person Act 186. Under this British law, a person who performs an illegal abortion can receive a prison sentence of between three years and life. It also may have breached the 1967 Abortion Act, which states that “anything done with intent to procure the miscarriage of a woman is unlawfully done.”
Pro-life activists also believe the agency's actions warrant a criminal investigation.
“Certainly their status as a charitable organization needs revisiting, as they seem to be flaunting their disregard for U.K. legislation,” said Julia Millington, a spokeswoman for Britain's Pro-Life Alliance. “But BPAS would also do well to look at Section 1A of the Criminal Law Act 1977, which makes it an offense to conspire in England to commit abroad an act which is both illegal in the foreign country and which would be illegal if it were committed in this country.”
Added Millington, “If the abortions are unlawful under Spanish law, as they certainly are by our interpretation, then the BPAS position is highly precarious. The offense of conspiracy carries in this case a potential life sentence and is therefore extremely serious. We call for an immediate investigation both from the Charity Commission and the police.”
Last year, the agency ran into another controversy when it was revealed that it was offering the “morning-after” pill to under-age girls without their parents knowing. Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham responded by accusing the service of exploiting youngsters.
The agency's controversial history strengthens the case for cutting off its public funding, its critics argue. “We call upon the government for a full and vigorous investigation into the conduct of BPAS — not only their part in carrying out apparently illegal abortions but also into the justifiability of their being publicly funded at all,” said Patrick Cusworth of the pro-life charity Life.
After The Sunday Telegraph's initial publication of the accusations, British Health Secretary John Reid asked the newspaper to allow him to review the videotapes and recordings of their interviews. After viewing them, on Oct. 16, Reid asked Britain's chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, to investigate the agency's actions.
Archbishop Nichols wrote to Reid urging a “thorough, effective and speedy” inquiry into the matter, the Birmingham Post reported Oct. 18.
“I was deeply distressed to read the reports last weekend of the activities of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service playing an active part in helping women to obtain late abortions, after 24, 25, 26 weeks or even later,” the archbishop wrote.
Added Archbishop Nichols, “British law gives only a tissue of protection to the child in the womb. That a publicly funded advisory service should help rip away even that tissue of protection is abhorrent.”
Greg Watts writes from London.
(Register staff contributed to this story.)