50.50: News

UK regulator investigates doctor for ‘abortion reversal’ treatment

Rights advocates celebrate action by GMC – in response to an openDemocracy investigation – to ‘protect the health and well-being of women’

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Nandini Archer
27 May 2021, 6.58am
The General Medical Council is the regulatory authority for doctors in the UK
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PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

A doctor in the UK is under investigation by the national regulator – and is currently barred from practising medicine without supervision – following an openDemocracy investigation into the worldwide spread of an unproven and potentially dangerous treatment, invented by the US Christian Right, that claims to ‘reverse’ abortions. 

The General Medical Council (GMC), which is the main regulatory authority for doctors in the UK, placed “interim conditions” on Dr Eileen Reilly (not named in openDemocracy’s original story) at a hearing in May. It is investigating whether further action should be taken, which could include a public hearing.

“I’m glad that the General Medical Council is investigating this. UK doctors should not be working with anti-abortion activists to advise and prescribe a treatment that is unproven and dangerous,” MP Nadia Whittome told openDemocracy.

“It’s a very positive action that will help protect the health and well-being of women,” said Katherine O'Brien from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), adding “it’s important that this has been brought to light” by openDemocracy. 

So-called ‘abortion pill reversal’ (APR) treatment was invented by a controversial anti-abortion doctor in California. It involves prescribing high doses of progesterone, a hormone, after the first of two pills used for medical abortions. 

Medical, as opposed to surgical, abortions have become increasingly common during the pandemic and amid restrictions on travel and access to health facilities. 

The only medical trial into APR’s safety and efficacy, in the US, was halted in 2019 after several participants were hospitalised with severe haemorrhaging. Despite this, the ‘treatment’ appears to have spread internationally, under the radar of regulators. 

Doctors around the world – supported by the US Christian Right group Heartbeat International – are providing women with this ‘treatment’, according to an openDemocracy investigation released earlier this year. At least 60 women in the UK requested APR in the first half of 2020, according to a Heartbeat medical director.

Dr Reilly offered an openDemocracy undercover reporter a prescription for Cyclogest pessaries containing progesterone, with instructions for the long-running ‘treatment’ regimen: “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.” (No prescription was actually issued.)

When asked about the potential health risks of trying to ‘reverse’ an abortion, Dr Reilly told our 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.”

‘It can cause harm’

Caroline Gazet, UK clinical director at MSI Reproductive Choices, said: “It is not safe to prescribe progesterone as so-called abortion reversal. There’s no evidence that it works, it can cause harm, and it can lead to haemorrhage.”

Gazet said MSI first came across this ‘treatment’ when a woman who found it online approached the organisation. “She was very vulnerable and we were shocked to find this was happening. Women having abortions can be very vulnerable, so they must be looked after by healthcare workers who actually deal with abortion patients.” 

“The situation warrants not one but multiple investigations by government bodies, as well as professional associations,” said Melissa Upreti, vice chair of the UN working group on discrimination against women and girls.

“Women who have been misled and subjected to medically dangerous procedures to supposedly reverse their abortions must be provided with appropriate medical assistance, options for legal recourse and reparations for the emotional and physical suffering caused to them. There can be no doubt that women are the victims here.”

‘You live in the UK, you’ve got a hospital and if you were worried about the bleeding, you’d go get help’

openDemocracy’s undercover reporter was connected to Dr Reilly by US operators of an ‘abortion pill reversal’ hotline run by Heartbeat – and advertised in the UK by the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC).

Dr Reilly told our undercover caller that she provided ‘abortion pill reversal’ treatment outside of her normal working hours as an obstetrician-gynaecologist.

openDemocracy passed on details about Dr Reilly’s activities to the GMC in early April. According to the GMC’s website, a hearing on 12 May at the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service imposed six “interim conditions” on her registration as a doctor. 

One condition says: “She must be supervised in all of her posts by a clinical supervisor.” In addition, “she must get the approval of the GMC before working or volunteering as a registered medical practitioner in a non-NHS post or setting.”

Meanwhile, case examiners are assessing the evidence as to whether a more substantive public hearing is required. Alternatively, Dr Reilly could be let off with no further action, with a warning or with restrictions on her work going forward. 

Second doctor under investigation

openDemocracy has been made aware of a second doctor, Dermot Patrick Kearney, who is also under investigation and subject to identical conditions. It is understood that this is also a result of prescribing APR. 

Dr Kearney and Dr Reilly appear to have worked together previously, including appearing on the same March for Life panel discussing abortion reversal last year.

It is not known how many women were given APR prescriptions by these two doctors, or how many other UK doctors may be providing this treatment. 

The GMC previously shared with openDemocracy guidance that it says doctors are expected to follow; this includes prescribing drugs “based on the best available evidence” and only with “adequate knowledge of the patient’s health”.

openDemocracy phoned Dr Reilly for comment – she hung up on us. Dr Kearney did not reply to several requests for comment via email and social media. 

Additional reporting by Lou Ferreira and Claire Provost. 

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