Exclusive:Illegal abortions: General Medical Council warns doctors should think carefully before reporting women to police
Some medical professionals have been accused of breaking patient confidentiality to report women in their care to the police.
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The General Medical Council (GMC) has warned that doctors must think carefully before reporting female patients to the police over suspected illegal abortions.
Numerous cases have come to light in recent months in which medical staff – including, in one case, a GP – have contacted the police to report suspicions that women in their care had ended their pregnancies themselves, in what has been described by some professionals as a breach of patient confidentiality.
The GMC is the statutory body that registers and licences doctors in the UK, and sets standards for best practice, including on confidentiality.
It has told NationalWorld that its guidance is clear that doctors must make the care of their patients their first concern, and that it “would be concerned if any patient in need of medical care felt unable to seek help because they feared being reported to the police”. It said any changes to abortion law would be a matter for Parliament, however.
NationalWorld has learned of one case in which a GP in Dorset reported a female patient to the police, during our investigation into how often police forces investigate women on suspicion of ending their own pregnancies. It was one among dozens of cases we uncovered of pregnant women being subjected to investigation.
Dr Jonathan Lord, co-chair of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ abortion taskforce, has also raised concerns about vulnerable female patients being reported to police by hospital staff after experiencing unexplained pregnancy loss – even if there is no evidence they have caused their own miscarriage. Dr Lord, who is also medical director of the charity MSI Reproductive Choices, a major provider of NHS abortions, has outlined two cases to NationalWorld.
In one, a teenage girl trying to hide her pregnancy from her parents during the first Covid lockdown suffered a miscarriage. She had previously discussed an abortion with MSI but was just past the 24-week legal limit – and police were subsequently called to the hospital once this became known. Her phone and laptop were confiscated and she was subjected to a long police investigation, impacting on her mental health, until a post-mortem examination six months after the stillbirth concluded it was due to natural causes.
In a second case, a woman delivered a stillborn foetus at around the 24-week limit after having spoken to MSI about the unwanted pregnancy. Dr Lord said police were called despite no evidence of criminal intent, and the patient was subsequently arrested in hospital and taken to a police cell despite having just undergone gynaecological surgery.
And last week (12 June) the sentencing to 28 months in prison of a woman who had taken abortion pills at 32-34 weeks pregnant made headlines across the country. She had been interviewed by police in hospital – and her internet search history examined – after being quizzed by medical staff when she delivered a stillborn foetus. Another illegal abortion prosecution in Oxford was abandoned last year, in which the woman was also thought to have been reported by medical staff, according to the Sunday Times.
Dr Lord is now pushing to get new guidance for staff about divulging information to the police signed off by medical faculties, to prevent disclosures without the woman’s consent. He is concerned that women who experience natural pregnancy loss, or who do purposefully end their pregnancies, will not seek vital medical aftercare for fear of the repercussions.
Last week (15 June) Baroness Barker asked in the House of Lords if the government would "work with royal colleges and the professional bodies as a matter of urgency to review the guidance", and confirm there is "no legal obligation for any health worker to report" women to the police if they present at hospital and say they have taken abortion pills. Lord Stewart of Dirleton replied that the government would continue to work with the medical bodies.
GMC confidentiality guidance for doctors states personal information can only be disclosed without a patient’s consent if the disclosure is required by law (such as to prevent terrorism or the spread of infectious diseases), if it is to the overall benefit of a patient who lacks capacity to consent, or if it can be justified in the public interest. Public interest justifications include protecting individuals or society from risks of serious crime, or to prevent death, as well as to facilitate “the prevention, detection or prosecution of serious crime, especially crimes against the person”.
“The benefits to an individual or to society of the disclosure must outweigh both the patient’s and the public interest in keeping the information confidential,” the guidance states.
In law, a baby is not a person until it has been born, although Home Office databases still classify abortion-related offences as violence against the person.
Women’s mental health charity WISH said it was “alarming” to hear of medical staff referring women to the police following pregnancy loss. “Confidentiality and trust are fundamental in healthcare, and it is distressing to hear that some women have had their traumatic experiences compounded by being interrogated or placed in police cells. The trauma and stress associated with pregnancy loss should be met with compassion, support, and appropriate medical care, not criminalisation.”
When asked about the doctors reporting women to police over suspected abortions, a GMC spokesperson said: “Our core medical guidance, Good Medical Practice, which sets out the standards of care and professional behaviour expected of all doctors in the UK, is clear that doctors must make the care of their patients their first concern. We would be concerned if any patient in need of medical care felt unable to seek help because they feared being reported to the police.
“Access to confidential healthcare is an important public benefit, and doctors owe a duty of confidentiality to patients which must be given careful thought before making any disclosure.”