Charity launches legal action after investigation finds NHS fees may force pregnant migrants into unwanted abortions

A UK charity has launched a legal challenge against the policy of charging vulnerable migrant women £7,000 or more to access NHS maternity care as it could force many of them into unwanted abortions and deter them from essential medical support.

Maternity care is an “immediately necessary service” in the UK, which means it must never be refused or delayed regardless of a patient’s immigration status or ability to pay. 

But Maternity Action says destitute migrant women who struggle to afford food and accommodation are receiving bills of £7,000 or more. 

The charity’s 2018 report into the impact of NHS maternity care charges revealed that out of sixteen women interviewed three would have had an abortion had they known about the charges earlier into their pregnancies.

One such woman was Leah, who was abandoned by her partner when she became pregnant. She had nowhere to live and no money. When faced with NHS costs the pregnant mother said, “I feel lost right now… Then, with the charging [I feel] bad… If I hadn’t been 33 weeks [pregnant] I could have aborted it.”

Maternity Action’s research also found that many women are avoiding essential medical care in an attempt to save money and that charges were inducing very high levels of anxiety and fear into women, affecting their physical as well as mental health.

In its legal challenge, the charity argues that the government is in breach of the public sector equality duty. The charity is calling on the Government to widen access to free maternity care and undertake a review of the “harsh” impact of charging vulnerable migrant women for such care. 

A number of professional health bodies have previously urged the Government to scrap NHS charges for foreign pregnant women on the grounds that they are potentially harmful to mothers and babies.

Last month, the Royal College of Midwives – which represents 47,000 midwives – backed a report by Maternity Action calling on the Government to drop the fees. 

In December 2018 the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists published a joint statement calling on the government to abolish NHS charges pending a review.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “While we expect overseas visitors to contribute to the cost of their care just like British taxpayers do, the NHS will never refuse maternity care – regardless of whether someone can pay – and vulnerable people, including asylum seekers, are exempt.”

Spokesperson for Right to Life UK, Catherine Robinson said: 

“It’s upsetting to hear of sad stories where pregnant mothers feel that due to the nature of their circumstances they have no alternative but to abort their unborn baby.

“We want to see the Government commit to more compassionate policies that widen free maternity care and better support pregnant migrants and their unborn babies.”