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The Sarah Catt Prosecution: It's Time to Repeal This Draconian Law

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Just as the most irritating thing about the recent violence in the Muslim world is that it forces one to defend the free expression of the moronic makers of tasteless films, the most exasperating thing about the Sarah Catt prosecution is that it forces one to defend the actions of someone as feckless as Sarah Catt. Yet defend her one must when archaic laws are insidiously used to diminish the liberty of women to decide what happens to their own bodies.

Catt was nine month pregnant and hoped to hide this from her husband as she believed he wasn't the father. Unfortunately she had passed the 24-week abortion limit and, after twice being refused a termination, decided to end the pregnancy herself. She did this within one week of her due date by using a drug bought over the internet and has been sentenced to eight years imprisonment for her actions by Mr Justice Cooke.

Contrary to the belief in certain quarters that nipping out for a casual aborsh is now as easy as buying milk, Victorian-era legislation prohibiting the procurement of a miscarriage is still on the statute books and the Abortion Act only provides a defence to destroying a foetus. As a matter of law, there is little doubt that Catt had committed a crime but that such ethically unjustifiable laws are being applied is precisely the problem. As the US philosopher Mary Anne Warren has stated: "The extension of equal moral status to foetuses threatens women's most basic rights".

Warren also states that "birth, rather than some earlier point, marks the beginning of full moral status." Indeed, this is also true of legal status. Although procuring a miscarriage is a crime, it is not murder as English law does not class an individual as a legal person unless they are born alive. This inconsistency is bad enough - why should it be wrong to end the life of entity that is not a person? It is like gaoling people for swatting flies - but the remarks of Mr Justice Cooke in the Catt case are even more puzzling. He believes that "all right thinking people would consider this offence [terminating one's pregnancy] more serious than manslaughter or any offence on the calendar other than murder."

Let's not forget that involuntary manslaughter includes death caused by your surgeon playing a crossword when he should be operating on you or by a thug punching you with the intention of giving you a black eye but the result that you fall off a cliff. It may be that some people think that what Catt did was worse than this and deserves an eight year sentence or, like the cretins who bomb abortion clinics believe, even more severe retribution. However, those who regard the death of a foetus as equal or even close to that of an adult are not right thinking people: they are barely even thinking people as there are no intellectually strong arguments for holding a foetus's rights to be the same as its mothers. Why, then, should the law allow the former to trump the latter?

Speaking of right-thinking people, they might also believe that judges should apply the law rather than "applying God's justice on the ground", as the Lawyers' Christian Fellowship - of which, as Dr Iain Brassington has pointed out, Mr Justice Cooke is the vice-president - seeks to do. This is an organisation whose members frequently lobby the government to change the law on abortion.

Of course I am not suggesting that Mr Justice Cooke would allow this to cloud his judgment in the Catt case. I'm sure that when he glosses over the fact that the law does not see a foetus as a legal person, struggles to hide his disgust at Catt by making several extraneous comparisons of her actions to murder or says that the Abortion Act is "wrongly" liberally interpreted he was maintaining the detached examination of the issues that a non-theocratic country would expect from a judge. Any appearance of bias must be entirely coincidental.

Incidentally, of course, when deciding whether Pincohet had diplomatic immunity, Lord Hoffman's links to Amnesty International led to the case being set aside. If only he had said that opposing dictators was part of his religion he might have not only been allowed to decide the case but also given carte blanche to say all sorts of bizarre and irrelevant remarks.

But whatever one's views on Mr Justice Cooke's comments, he has the law firmly on his side. Unfortunately for the rest of us though, this is a law that subjugates the choices of women in favour of something that is not even self-conscious.

I'm not saying that Catt's actions were blameless. As Professor John Harris has stated "The foetus is not a person and therefore cannot be wronged if its life is ended prematurely. It can of course be wronged in other ways, if it is caused pain for example." By ending the foetus's life outside safe medical channels, Catt may have caused it a painful death and this would be morally unsupportable. However, our regressive laws which prevented her access to such channels and denied her control over her body are equally to blame. A century and a half is long enough. It is time to repeal this draconian law and allow abortion on demand.