|Why has the Government changed the Guidance on Abortions for Girls Under 16?
26 Aug 2004
A number of constituents have written to me on this important subject, expressing concern that abortions on young girls can take place without their parents' knowledge.
I took this up with the Minister and this is her reply.
From the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Public Health
Melanie Johnson MP
The Rt Hon Sir George Young MP
Thank you for your letter of 2 August about abortions for girls under the age of 16.
Firstly, I would emphasise that there has been no change to the laws relating to abortion in the UK. It is accepted Parliamentary practice that, because of the particularly sensitive nature of the subject, proposals for changes in the law on abortion have come from back bench members and decisions are made on the basis of free votes. The Government has no plans to change the law on abortion.
The guidelines to which you refer are entitled Best Practice Guidance for Doctors and other Health Professionals on the Provision of Advice and Treatment to Young People Under 16 on Contraception, Sexual and Reproductive Health and were published at the end of July. Guidance on this issue was last issued in 1986, nearly 20 years ago, and there was evidence to suggest that health professionals were confused as to whether or not they could see under 16s without a parent. Misinterpretation of the Sexual Offences Act has exacerbated the confusion. The current guidelines clarify to doctors and health professionals that they owe under 16s the same duty of care and confidentiality as older patients. Most importantly, the legal framework and professional codes for health professionals remain unchanged.
Health professionals can provide medical advice, treatment and examination, including abortion, to young people aged under 16. Health professionals work within an established legal and guidance framework which involves assessing the young person's competence to understand the choices they are making and in particular encouraging them to talk to their parents. In the case of abortion, where the young person is competent to consent but cannot be persuaded to involve a parent, every effort should be made to help them find another adult to provide support, for example another family member or specialist youth worker.
All health professionals are bound by their professional code and legal obligations as to confidentiality, which apply to patients under 16 as well as older patients.
The duty of confidentiality is not, however, absolute. In the rare cases when a health professional believes that there is a risk to the health, safety or welfare of a young person or others which is so serious as to outweigh the young person's right to privacy, they should follow locally agreed child protection protocols, as outlined in Working Together to Safeguard Children. In these exceptional circumstances, the over-riding objective must be to safeguard the young person.
In reality, it is unusual for a young person aged under 16 to undergo an abortion and not involve a parent. Most young people do involve their parents and health professionals work hard to persuade them to do so.
It is also necessary to stress that the Government does recognise the vital role parents have to play in sexual health mailers involving young people. Research shows that young people whose parents discuss sex and relationships openly and
without embarrassment have sex later and are more likely to use contraception. 86 per cent of parents feel strongly that there would be fewer teenage pregnancies if more parents talked to their children about sex and relationships. However, nearly half of young people say they receive no or little information from their parents.
With this in mind, the Government's Teenage Pregnancy Strategy is supporting parents in talking to their children through the Time to Talk campaign and helpline run by Parentline Plus, and through initiatives in local teenage pregnancy strategies.