While abortion is legal up to the 24th week of pregnancy, terminations for non-medical reasons are generally not available in Scotland after 18-20 weeks.
Abortions are legal in England, Wales and Scotland up to 24 weeks for non-medical reasons, but can be carried out at any point if a mother’s life is at risk or in the case of foetal abnormalities.
The majority of abortions in Scotland occur before nine weeks, but each year around 120 are requested after 16 weeks. However, abortion for non-medical reasons has historically not been available after 18-20 weeks in Scotland.
The reasons for the lack of access in Scotland may include the specialist nature of the late abortion service and “capacity issues” relating to numbers of patients, as well as Scottish doctors being less willing to approve abortions after 20 weeks than medics in England.
Researchers from the Medical Research Council (MRC) in Glasgow spoke to 23 women attending abortion services in Scotland after 16 weeks. Of these, 13 went on to have an abortion in Scotland, five travelled to England and five decided to continue with the pregnancy.
The research, funded by the Scottish Government, found those travelling to England faced financial barriers, for example having to pay for travel and accommodation.
Common reasons for seeking an abortion at a later stage included only finding out they were pregnant later on and changes in life, such as splitting with a partner.
Lead author Dr Carrie Purcell said: “The women we spoke to came from a wide range of backgrounds and age groups, and none of them took lightly the decision to seek a later abortion.
“Even when having to travel a substantial distance to obtain an abortion, our participants felt termination was best for them. This indicates that later abortion continues to be an essential part of healthcare provision for women in Scotland.”
Women reported concerns about the costs, and those who did go had to take time off work. The researchers found the need to travel to England exacerbated an already stressful experience.
The authors, writing in the journal Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, concluded: “Reducing barriers to access and improving local provision of such abortions are a necessity.”
Audrey Simpson, from the Family Planning Association, said women needing later abortions should not be discriminated against because of where they lived.
A spokesman for the Scottish Catholic Church said: “Incredibly, the report describes travelling to England for a late abortion, as ‘particularly stressful’ and an ‘unpleasant experience’ for the women involved. For the unborn child, being aborted, there is no concern or consideration expressed in this report.”