UK drops restrictions on doctor who offered ‘abortion reversal’
A Christian medic who offered to prescribe the controversial ‘treatment’ to our undercover reporter has been let off
Restrictions imposed by medical regulators on a Christian doctor who offered to prescribe an openDemocracy undercover reporter so-called ‘abortion pill reversal’ (APR) treatment have been lifted.
The General Medical Council, the UK’s main regulatory body for doctors, informed openDemocracy: “Two senior decision-makers, known as case examiners, one a practising medical doctor and the other not, have considered the concerns raised. They have decided that we do not need to take any action against Dr [Eileen] Reilly’s registration.”
The Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service had originally placed interim conditions on both Dr Reilly and another doctor, Dr Dermot Kearney, last year while the GMC carried out its investigation.
Restrictions were also dropped against Dr Kearney last month after he took his case to the High Court.
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Medical abortion consists of two pills taken over several days, and became particularly common during the pandemic amid travel restrictions.
APR is purported to stop the medical termination of a pregnancy after the first abortion pill is taken, by giving high doses of hormones. While skipping the second abortion pill may mean a pregnancy continues, there is no evidence that APR ‘treatment’ itself has any effect.
The concept of APR originated with an anti-abortion doctor in California.
Dr Reilly explained the procedure she was prescribing to our undercover reporter last year: “Put one pessary into the vagina and one pessary into the back passage. Do that every six hours for four doses, and then go down to one tablet three times a day for five days, and then just once a day right up to 14 weeks.”
When asked about the potential health risks of this ‘reversal’ method, the UK doctor told our undercover reporter: “At the end of the day, you live in the UK, you’ve got a hospital there and if you were worried about the bleeding, you’d go get help.”
Dr Reilly described herself to our reporter as an obstetric gynaecologist who supports ‘abortion pill reversal’ outside her normal work hours, which appear to be at an NHS hospital.
Katherine O’Brien from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (Bpas) told openDemocracy in response to Dr Reilly’s restrictions being dropped: “There is no evidence that giving progesterone to counteract mifepristone works and some evidence to show that it is harmful.
“The only randomised trial attempting to test whether high dose progesterone can interfere with the actions of mifepristone had to be stopped early because of a higher than expected rate of haemorrhage in participants.
“In November 2021 NICE produced new guidance which explicitly states that their recommendations on the use of progesterone to prevent miscarriage are not to be adopted in other circumstances, including after the use of mifepristone [the first ‘abortion pill’] in so-called abortion-reversal procedures”.
Dr Jonathan Lord, MSI Reproductive Choices UK clinical director, said: “We are extremely concerned that some groups are still recommending progesterone as a means of ‘abortion reversal’. There is no evidence to suggest that this works and some evidence that it may even be harmful.
“All drugs have side effects, and the prescriptions are expensive, so without any known benefit their use risks exploiting patients when they are in a distressed and vulnerable state.
“We understand neither the GMC nor its expert witness endorsed the use of progesterone – their role was to simply determine whether there was a realistic prospect of establishing if a doctor prescribing it is fit to practice.
You live in the UK, you’ve got a hospital and if you were worried about the bleeding, you’d go get help
“Further to this, we have asked the GMC to produce guidance for doctors so it is clear when they may take action where drugs without evidence of benefit are prescribed and where the doctor would not be willing to counsel the patient on their full range of treatment options owing to their personal beliefs.”
The GMC told openDemocracy it did not comment on cases that have not gone to full hearing, but it did say: “As the regulator of individual doctors, we don’t give clinical advice and do not have a view about the clinical safety or appropriateness of particular approaches to medical abortion.
“We expect doctors to be familiar with guidelines that affect their work and to follow the law, our guidance and other regulations relevant to their work, including relevant clinical guidance.”
It is unclear how many people Dr Reilly personally prescribed APR. Heartbeat International, the US Christian right group that promotes this ‘treatment’, says at least 60 women in the UK tried it in the first half of 2020.
Dr Lord from MSI told openDemocracy: "The overwhelming majority of people who opt for a medical abortion are very sure about their decision, and research confirms that very few regret their choice.
“In the extremely rare event that someone does change their mind having taken abortion medication, it’s vital that they are fully supported by a non-judgemental team who can provide impartial information and independent counselling about all the options.
“Instead, those offering ‘abortion reversal’ services choose to impose their own beliefs and remove patients, many of whom are already in a distressed and vulnerable state, from legitimate NHS services.”
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