A Mother Was Jailed For Taking Abortion Pills Too Late – And People Are Furious

A protest march calling for the decriminalisation of abortion has been organised for this Saturday.
A protest march calling for the decriminalisation of abortion will take place outside London's Royal Courts of Justice on Saturday
A protest march calling for the decriminalisation of abortion will take place outside London's Royal Courts of Justice on Saturday
SOPA Images via Getty Images

A woman in the UK was just sentenced to more than two years in prison for procuring abortion pills after the legal time limit – and people are seriously worried about what this means for reproductive rights in this country.

The sentencing has even inspired a march outside London’ Royal Courts of Justice on Saturday, calling for the decriminalisation of abortion.

Here’s what you need to know.

What happened?

A mother-of-three, the 44-year-old was sentenced to spend 28 months behind bars on Monday after receiving abortion pills under the “pills by post” scheme the government introduced at the height of the Covid pandemic.

Medication to trigger an at-home abortion can be offered for pregnancies up to 10 weeks after a remote consultation – but, the woman in question tried to terminate her pregnancy beyond that limited time.

The court heard she thought she was around 28 weeks pregnant when she gave false information to the services offering abortion pills, in May 2020, claiming she was 10 weeks pregnant. Doctors said they later concluded that the foetus was between 32 and 34 weeks gestation when she took the pills.

This discrepancy in the details the woman shared was uncovered after a probe into her online searches and messages.

Stoke on Trent’s Crown Court heard that she was unaware how far along she was in the pregnancy at the time because she couldn’t get a hospital scan.

After taking the pills, the baby was stillborn on May 11 2020. Her cause of death was recorded as use of abortion drugs. There was no sign she took an independent breath, according to the coroner’s report.

In England, Scotland and Wales, abortion is – in most cases – legal up to 24 weeks, but has to be carried out in a hospital or clinic if the foetus is more than 10 weeks old.

The judge described her abortion as a “tragic and unlawful decision”, adding: “The balance struck by the law between a woman’s reproductive rights and the rights of her unborn foetus is an emotive and often controversial issue.”

Justice Pepperall also concluded: “In my judgment your culpability was high … because you knew full well your pregnancy was beyond the limit of 24 weeks, and you deliberately lied to gain access to telemedical services.

“I accept you feel immense guilt and remorse. You are racked by guilt and suffer depression. You are plagued by nightmares from seeing the baby’s face.”

She pleaded guilty to the Offences against the Person Act, for legislation which was first drawn up in 1861.

Half of this will be served in custody, and the other half under licence.

The judge said there were no sentencing guidelines for this offence, but the maximum sentence was life imprisonment under the 19th century act.

The judge did reference a 2012 case in his sentencing, to a woman Sarah Catt who was sentencing to eight years behind bars after getting an abortion within a week of her due date – a later appeal saw her sentence reduced to three and a half years.

What does this mean for reproductive rights?

Worries around reproductive rights in the UK had already started to increase following the US’s decision to overturn Roe vs Wade. That meant states across the country no longer had to protect the right to have an abortion, in any circumstances.

So this move from the British courts, to punish a woman for taking abortion pills beyond the 10 week mark, has triggered alarm.

The BPAS – British Pregnancy Advisory Service – provided the medication to the woman. In a post on Twitter the day before her sentencing, the organisation asked: “What kind of a society treats women this way?

“Unless the law is reformed, more women and girls will face the trauma of length police investigations and the threat of prison.”

BPAS has also pointed out that the number of women and girls facing police investigation due to abortion laws in this country has risen over the last three years.

Labour MP Stella Creasy condemned the sentencing by comparing it to the average prison sentence for a violent offence in England, which is 18 months.

She said: “This is happening here, not America, El Salvador or Poland. Here in the UK. Access to abortion should be a human right, not based on criminal statutes but for women in England, Scotland and Wales it’s still not legal and cases like this show human tragic consequences.”

Creasy added: “We need urgent reform to make safe access for all women in England, Scotland and Wales a human right.”

Fellow Labour MP Diana Johnson tweeted: “Decriminalisation of abortion now.”

Leader of the Women’s Equality Party, Mandu Reid, also warned on Twitter: “This case highlights how archaic the laws that govern our reproductive rights are – they date back to before women having the right to vote. Abortion is healthcare, no-one should be criminalised for seeking healthcare. I hope the judge sees sense.”

Amnesty International’s women’s human rights programme director, Chiara Capraro, said: “It is shocking – and quite frankly terrifying – that in 2023 a woman in the UK has been sentenced to jail because of a law dating back to 1861.

“Access to abortion is essential healthcare and should be managed as such. This is a tremendously sad story and underscores the desperate need for legal reform in relation to reproductive health.

“Four years ago, Northern Ireland was the first part of the UK to decriminalise abortion. It is high time that the rest of the UK does the same to guarantee the protection of women’s fundamental right to health.”

Gender equality campaigners at Fawcett Society also pushed back against the ruling.

Together with BPAS and the Women’s Equality Party, they have organised a march outside London’s Royal Courts of Justice for Saturday, in an effort to demand abortion law reform.

And the fury at the ruling seems to be pretty widespread, with many other Twitter users chiming in to express their fury at the judgement.

It comes after groups including the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Royal College of Midwives asked the judge for a non-custodial sentence in April, calling for “leniency”.

The letter read: “We are fearful that if the case before you receives a custodial sentence it may signal to other women who access telemedical abortion services, or who experience later gestation deliveries, that they risk imprisonment if they seek medical care.”

However, the judge said this letter was “inappropriate” and said he does not accept that imprisonment for this woman “is likely to deter women and girls from lawfully seeking abortion care within the 24-week limit”.

Spokesperson from Right To Life UK, Catherine Robinson, also told HuffPost UK: “We are calling for the reinstatement of in-person appointments before abortions take place to ensure that the gestation of babies can accurately be assessed.

“We are also calling for a full inquiry into the abortion provider, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service for sending out abortion pills to a woman whose baby, Lily, was 22 weeks beyond the legal limit for at-home abortions.”

The campaign group called for the government to reject changing laws to allow abortion up until birth, adding: “At at least 32 weeks or around 8 months gestation, Baby Lily was a fully formed human child. If her mother had been given an in-person appointment by BPAS, she would still be alive.”


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