Two women are facing prison sentences for accessing abortions in the UK, because in 2022, abortion is still technically a criminal offence if it doesn’t meet certain criteria.
The shocking story, which featured in the Sunday Times this weekend, has led to campaigners warning of a “chilling” rise in police investigations concerning women who’ve accessed abortions.
In a letter written to Max Hill QC, the director of public prosecutions (DPP), a group of 66 organisations have called for these – and all other current proceedings – to be dropped.
The organisations – including the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Amnesty International, Southall Black Sisters and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) – say that over the past eight years, at least 17 women have been investigated by police for ending their own pregnancies, “though the actual number is likely to be higher”.
What happened in the cases of the two women?
We know some (but not all) details about the two women facing prosecution.
The first woman is accused of “unlawfully” administering herself with the abortion pill Misoprostol. The woman, who is mother to a toddler, was told via an interpreter that she will stand trial in February next year.
The second woman obtained pills from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) in lockdown, under legislation which allowed women under 10 weeks pregnant to receive “pills by post” during pandemic restrictions following a remote consultation. The woman went on to deliver a 28-week foetus and was reported to the police. If she’s found guilty, she faces up to life in prison.
The open letter from organisations details the harrowing circumstances that other girls and women faced when subjected to criminal investigation.
In 2021, a 15-year-old girl was investigated by police after an unexplained stillbirth at 28 weeks and accused of illegal abortion. Her phone and laptop were confiscated during her GCSE exams, and she was reportedly “driven to self-harm” by the year-long investigation. Police dropped the case after a coroner concluded the pregnancy ended because of natural causes.
In another case, a woman was reportedly arrested in hospital in 2021 and kept in a police cell for 36 hours after a stillbirth at 24 weeks.
But isn’t abortion legal in the UK?
Abortion is legal across the UK, but there are certain criteria that must be met.
The Abortion Act 1967 made abortion legal across England, Scotland, and Wales, up to 23 weeks and 6 days of pregnancy (gestation).
The law still states that abortion providers have a legal duty to ask why a woman is considering an abortion. Two doctors must then sign off to confirm the woman meets the legal criteria for an abortion.
This is all due to a 19th Century abortion law – the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act – which says a woman has committed a criminal offence if she “unlawfully procures her own miscarriage”. The punishment is up to life in prison.
In Northern Ireland, the law is slightly different. In 2019, abortion was decriminalised up to 12 weeks under any circumstances. After 12 weeks, Northern Ireland’s abortion laws technically follow the rest of the UK, though access to services still remains limited. Last year, 161 women from Northern Ireland travelled to England and Wales for abortions.
What do campaigners say?
More than 32,000 people have signed a petition launched by Diane Munday and the publication Refinery29 calling for abortion to be decriminalised across the UK. Other groups say the latest cases show why the law needs to change.
“Two women, who endured years of police investigations, are being dragged before the courts and facing up to life imprisonment for seeking to end a pregnancy. Data suggests that this is only the beginning of an increase in the criminalisation of women in the most complex and difficult of circumstances,” says Clare Murphy, chief executive of BPAS, the UK’s biggest abortion provider.
“What kind of society treats women in this way? There was global outrage when the last US president suggested women be punished for abortion, yet here in the UK, our arcane 19th Century abortion laws enable just that.
“It is abhorrent that 160 years later vulnerable women should suffer from legislation drawn up in a world which is unrecognisable to us now, and punished for making decisions about their own bodies.”
Murphy warns that these prosecutions may deter women experiencing miscarriages and incomplete abortions from seeking treatment when needed.
“For some migrant women who are ineligible for NHS-funded abortion care, they may feel that accessing abortion pills illegally is their only option,” she adds. “If these women attend hospital needing help, should the police be called, or should these women receive medical care and support without fear of prosecution?
“There is no public interest in pursuing these cases. We urge the DPP to issue guidance to stop the prosecution of women ending their own pregnancies as a matter of urgency.”