As a woman is jailed, UK urged to reform ‘outdated’ abortion laws

Public anger rises after a judge decided to prosecute a woman who secured pills for a late-term abortion.

Protesters hold banners during Abortion Rights Solidarity demonstration, after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade decision that legalised abortion, outside the U.S. embassy in London, Britain July 9, 2022. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Protesters hold banners during an Abortion Rights Solidarity demonstration in London in July, 2022 [File: Henry Nicholls/Reuters]

Women’s rights groups, politicians and medics are calling on the British government to reform abortion laws after a woman was jailed for taking pills to end her pregnancy after the 24-week limit.

The 44-year-old mother of three was sent the medicine by post during a COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, a scheme that was introduced during the pandemic because many in-person services were closed due to social distancing measures.

A court heard this week that she misled the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) about how far along in the pregnancy she was, in order to secure the pills.

On Monday, she was sentenced to 28 months in prison after admitting to terminating her pregnancy when she was between 32 and 34 weeks pregnant.

Abortions in Britain are legal before 24 weeks and must be carried out in clinics after 10 weeks of pregnancy.

The prosecution said the woman searched “how to hide a pregnancy bump”, “how to have an abortion without going to the doctor”, and “how to lose a baby at six months” on the internet between February and May 2020.

She also pleaded guilty to an alternative charge relating to a law that is more than 160 years old – Section 58 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.

She will serve half her sentence in prison and the remaining time under licence, supervised by probation.

Calls demanding an end to a law being described as outdated are growing.

Dame Diana Johnson, chair of the Commons Home Affairs Committee, urged the government to “step up” and decriminalise abortions.

Harriet Wistrich, head of the Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ), questioned the legislation and the prosecution of the woman.

“What possible purpose is served in criminalising and imprisoning this woman when at most she needs better access to healthcare and other support?” Wistrich said. “She is clearly already traumatised by the experience and now her children will be left without their mother for over a year.”

Chiara Capraro, head of Amnesty International’s women’s human rights programme, described the decision as “shocking and quite frankly terrifying”.

“Access to abortion is essential healthcare and should be managed as such.”

Former chief crown prosecutor for the northwest of England, Nazir Afzal argued that it was not in the public interest to prosecute.

Citing public feeling towards laws restricting abortions and her mitigating factors, he told the BBC: “Had I been involved, had I been doing this particular case, I would not have prosecuted it.

“This whole terrible event took place during the pandemic and people were making some terrible choices during that period that perhaps they regret now. And I think that’s one of the things I would have factored in, in relation to this particular case.”

Pro-choice rally
Protesters hold signs as they attend an Abortion Rights Solidarity demonstration, in London, Britain [File: Henry Nicholls/Reuters]

The judge presiding over the case, Justice Edward Pepperall, said: “This case concerns one woman’s tragic and unlawful decision to obtain a very late abortion.

“The balance struck by the law between a woman’s reproductive right and the rights of her unborn foetus is an emotive and controversial issue. That is, however, a matter for Parliament and not for the courts.”

But some took to social media to share their outrage over the conviction, with one woman saying the decision by the Crown Court was “depraved” and a “burning injustice”.

Nadia Whittome, a politician with the main opposition Labour Party, tweeted: “No woman should be in prison for making decisions about her own body. This shocking case highlights the urgent need to change the law. Abortion is healthcare. It must be decriminalised, now.”

BPAS tweeted: “No woman can ever go through this again. We need abortion law reform in Great Britain NOW.”

Dame Diana, who has previously tried to repeal 1861 legislation, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think Parliament has a role now to look at reforming our abortion laws. There’s no other country in the world, as I understand it, that would criminalise a woman in this way.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies