Abortion clinics get spot-checks
Abortion clinics across England are undergoing unannounced inspections to check they are abiding by the law.
Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, who ordered the Care Quality Commission checks, raised concerns consent forms were being pre-signed - before a woman had even been seen.
Of around 250 clinics visited, there are concerns around 20% were "non-compliant" with the law or regulations.
But one abortion provider questioned why the checks were happening now.
The work of abortion clinics first came under the spotlight in February when theDaily Telegraph secretly filmed doctorsand alleged some were agreeing to terminate foetuses when women did not want their baby because of its gender.
Police are still investigating the newspaper's allegations.
But one doctor has been suspended and two more have conditions attached to their licence to practise.
The law says two doctors must certify an abortion, except in emergencies.
However, there is no requirement for them to have actually seen the woman - only that they should have seen and assessed the necessary clinical information about her case, which could have been taken by another doctor or nurse.
The requirement for two doctors' signatures was criticised as long ago as 2007, when a report by MPs on the Commons science and technology committee recommended it be removed because of the potential for abortions to be unnecessarily delayed.
But the concerns raised by the health secretary are that doctors are signing forms before any clinical assessment has taken place, which would mean they would not know the circumstances of the woman involved.
Mr Lansley said: "I am shocked and appalled to learn that some clinics - which look after women in what are often difficult circumstances - may be allowing doctors to pre-sign abortion certificates. This is contrary to the spirit and the letter of the Abortion Act.
"The process of pre-signing certificates where the doctor does not know who the woman is for whom that certificate may be used in relation to that abortion is in itself illegal. I am not prepared to tolerate a failure to respect the law."
He added: "The rules in the Abortion Act are there for a reason - to ensure there are safeguards for women before an abortion can be carried out. Abortion shouldn't be undertaken lightly and the right checks and balances must be in place."
CQC teams will now revisit clinics where there are concerns over practises.
The health secretary says doctors could face criminal proceedings or being sanctioned by their regulatory body. Clinics could also be stripped of their licences to provide abortions.
Paul Tully, a spokesman for the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) said: "The casual attitude of doctors who sign certificates without seeing the woman simply indicates the contempt for the letter of the law that has been engendered over the years.
However Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), one of the main providers, said: "What I think is absolutely wrong is the way that the Secretary of State has instructed the Care Quality Commission this week.
"They have stopped doing their other work to do this - and at some of our clinics they have spent up to five hours going through paper work, when as far as I am aware there is nothing different about the way that doctors are practising now than the way that they were practising five years ago or 10 years ago."