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Abortion services
  Marie Stopes survey of GP attitudes to abortion.

In mid June, Marie Stopes International published the results of its survey into GP attitudes to abortion. The survey was the first major investigation into the views GPs hold on abortion for 26 years. Over 7000 GPs were surveyed, a sample big enough to make the results reliable. Given that they usually provide one of the two doctors signatures required before any abortion can legally proceed, GPs are crucial to the smooth operation of the 1967 Abortion Act.

The findings of the survey were positive for those who are keen to ensure that women can access abortion services. The show a massive 'sea change' in GPs' opinions on the issue of abortion, since the last significant survey in 1973 by National Opinion Polls. In the 1973 survey, only 24 per cent of GPs supported the principle of changing the law to introduce abortion at the request of a woman. In contrast, this research found that the majority of GPs would support changes in the law to make abortion easier for women: 60 per cent of GPs surveyed said they would support the introduction of abortion on request in the first trimester - or first 14 weeks - of pregnancy.

However, it also found that a significant minority of GPs may be actively working to delay or prevent women from accessing abortion services to which they are legally entitled. The study found that this minority of family doctors said they were against abortion, but refused to declare their conscientious objection.

Other key findings in the report include:
  • 82 per cent of GPs describe themselves as 'pro-choice'
  • 18 per cent said they were anti-abortion
  • 76 per cent of GPs thought women should be entitled to free NHS abortions
  • 85 per cent thought GPs with a conscientious objection to abortion should declare their position to women
  • 10 per cent said there was no need to inform women of a conscientious objection
  • One in five of those against abortion said they still supported a woman's right to chose
  • More than a quarter of anti-abortion GPs said they did not believe they should have to tell women that they conscientiously objected to the practice

MSI's Deputy Chief Executive, Helen Axby, said the organisation was both encouraged and disturbed by the findings in the report. She said: "MSI is encouraged by the strength of support from GPs for reform, to introduce a modern law where the decision on abortion rests with the woman concerned - in consultation with a doctor. At the moment the woman is at the mercy of two doctors exercising discretionary powers. We are disturbed by the finding that a small, but significant minority of GPs may be imposing their own moral standards and values upon women, causing distress, delay and financial hardship."

In response to the survey findings, he British Medical Association said GPs had a responsibility to provide sympathetic support and non-directive counselling for women seeking abortions. Dr John Chisholm, chairman of the BMA's GP Committee, said: "Women who approach their doctors with an unwanted pregnancy will have thought long and hard about the choices that face them. If they are seeking termination, GPs have a duty to respond with sensitivity and to seek to do their best for their patient." Dr Chisholm also stressed that it was unethical for a GP with a conscientious objection to abortion to delay referral to another practitioner.

Professor Mike Pringle, chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), said: "We support a woman's right to make considered decisions within the limits of the law and believe GPs should have the right to choose their stance as long as it does not affect a woman's right to choose or access services."

Predictably, Nuala Scarisbrick, of the anti-abortion charity LIFE, said: "If the suggestions contained in today's report came into force the damage abortion does to women's lives and to our society would be magnified. The time to say enough is enough must be now.''

Representatives of pro-choice organisations in contrast are keen to ensure women are treated sympathetically and appropriately by GPs. At a meeting to launch the research report, it was suggested that GPs with a conscientious objection to abortion should make this clear at their practices. This would ensure that women seeking abortion would know to approach another GP, and would mean that GPs who do not agree with abortion could practise medicine in line with the conscience. It was also suggested that those GPs who are pro-choice could given support for their views, and encouraged to make their stance public, by displaying 'proud to support choice' stickers at their surgeries.

MSI can be contacted at 0171 574 7353
Their website address is www.mariestopes.org.uk
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