Doctors have called on MPs to decriminalize abortion after two women faced prison terms under an antiquated Victorian law dating back to the 1860s.
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists today called on the government to amend the law, arguing that women who have abortions without the certification of two doctors should not face criminal charges.
President Dr. Edward Morris said women should be free to have abortions without fear of prosecution.
A woman revealed today how she suffered flashbacks after spending two years in prison for taking abortion pills at home.
Two British women also face jail under an obscure 160-year-old law, accused of taking legal prescription drugs to ‘buy an abortion’.
UK law currently allows abortions up to 24 weeks where two doctors agree there is a risk to the mental or physical health of the mother or existing babies.
Although the 1967 Abortion Act legalized terminations up to 23 weeks in England, Wales and Scotland, neither the 1861 Offenses Against the Person Act nor the Infant Life (Protection) Act 1929 were repealed.
This means that women who attempt to have an unscheduled abortion or terminate their pregnancy without medical supervision are charged with child destruction and face life in prison.
Stock image: Women who do not have abortions through medical professionals or outside legal time limits can still be prosecuted in England, Wales and Scotland – but not in Northern Ireland.
What is the UK law on abortion?
Abortion Act 1967
Women are allowed to have an abortion up to 14 weeks where two doctors agree that there is a risk to the mental or physical health of the mother or existing babies.
In a new law introduced in April 2020, women can now have a postal abortion at home up to 10 weeks.
Women who have abortions outside these rules can still be prosecuted and sent to prison for life.
Where the woman’s life is at risk or the child has a serious disability, there is no time limit for access to abortion.
Offenses against the Person Act 1861
Attempts to obtain an abortion fall under two categories in the 1861 Act:
1. Using drugs or devices to obtain an abortion
2. Buying drugs to induce abortion
However, the 1967 Abortion Act legalized abortion if performed by a doctor, two doctors acting in good faith, and if at least one qualifying factor was met.
But this does not apply to Northern Ireland.
As of 2019, anyone who obtains an abortion in Northern Ireland can, except in very limited circumstances, face life imprisonment under the 1861 Act.
It was legalized under section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019.
Child Life (Protection) Act
This Act states that a person who intentionally destroys the life of a child who can be born alive can be punished.
Under the Abortion Act 1967, abortion is legal if it is carried out in accordance with regulations, including by registered practitioners and medical practices run by the NHS.
Dr. Edward Morris told the Telegraph: ‘Women facing allegations are often in desperate or vulnerable situations, and the current law could further prevent them from seeking the help and care they need.
We believe that prosecuting a woman for terminating her pregnancy will never be in the public interest.
‘Abortion should be decriminalised, while being subject to regulatory and professional standards for all other medical procedures, to ensure all women and girls are supported without fear of prosecution,’ he told the Telegraph.
Other major medical bodies such as the British Medical Association and the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Health (FSRH) have also called for the decriminalization of abortion.
Such changes would ensure that women who have had abortions cannot be investigated for criminal activity, he added.
The government introduced the ‘Pills by Post’ Act during the Covid pandemic, which allowed women up to ten weeks pregnant to receive abortion pills in the post to take home after a remote consultation.
The provisions in the House became permanent in March after MPs voted to back amendments to the Health and Care Bill.
Full-term abortions can be carried out in the UK if there is a fatal risk to the mother or the baby.
Illegal abortion cases in the UK are usually brought against women who have an abortion but are in medical danger – for example if they are admitted to hospital and tell staff they have taken the abortion pill.
In Northern Ireland, abortion was fully decriminalized following a referendum in 2018 – but the provision is still weak, with hundreds of women still having to travel to the UK.
A woman jailed for having an abortion in the UK has spoken out about her ordeal after the CPS threatened her with a life sentence.
Laura, 20, whose name has been changed, described taking abortion pills when she thought she was eight to ten weeks pregnant – but didn’t see a doctor because she was afraid of her abusive boyfriend.
She said her irregular periods meant she didn’t know she was actually pregnant for 30 weeks.
After taking the pill, Laura had to be taken to the hospital after losing a large amount of blood because the pregnancy was further along than expected.
She told The Sunday Times: ‘I almost died. I remember being bathed in at least an inch of blood.
‘I wanted to die. To be honest, it felt like the whole world just ended before my eyes.’
Laura did not tell the police or hospital staff about her boyfriend’s abuse because she was too scared when he threatened to kill her at the hospital.
She was sentenced to two years in prison for illegal abortion in court.
Laura’s case is by no means unique – at least two other women in England are set to appear in court on the charge, and face substantial prison terms if convicted.
At Oxford Crown Court this year, a 25-year-old woman pleaded not guilty to using the abortion drug misoprostol with intent to cause an abortion. He was told through an interpreter that he would stand trial in February next year.
She allegedly took one of the two pills doctors routinely prescribe to induce an abortion in January last year.
This offense falls under the Offenses against the Person 1861 and carries a life sentence in prison.
Another woman is due to appear at Staffordshire Magistrates’ Court charged with child destruction under the Infant Life (Protection) Act 1929.
The unidentified woman received the pills from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (Bpas) during the coronavirus lockdown under laws introduced during the pandemic.
It allowed women up to ten weeks pregnant to receive abortion pills in the post to take at home after a remote consultation.
After the woman took the pill, she gave birth to a 28-week-old fetus and reported it to the police. If found guilty, he will be sentenced to life imprisonment.
There are fears among some doctors that women who have had natural abortions or stillbirths may face scrutiny for considering early terminations.
MPs such as Labour’s Jess Phillips have already called for urgent changes. Ms Phillips, who has previously spoken about her experience of having an abortion in the House of Commons, has called the UK law ‘backward and draconian’.
Polling by YouGov shows that only one in four people in the UK can correctly choose from a range of options what the UK’s abortion laws are.
Senior UK doctors say continued prosecutions could prevent women suffering miscarriages and incomplete abortions from seeking treatment when they need it.
Earlier this month doctors, lawyers and charity workers signed a letter to Director of Public Prosecutions Max Hill QC asking him to stop taking women to court to end pregnancies.
The letter calls for all current proceedings to be stopped and no future charges to be brought against women or girls who terminate pregnancies or lose pregnancies.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service shared the letter on social media, which read: ‘We believe that, in 2022, it is not in the public interest to charge a woman who terminates her own pregnancy, and no woman should face investigation or prosecution. Ending a pregnancy or experiencing an unexpected or unexplained pregnancy loss.’
In a tweet, they added: ‘When we say women’s reproductive rights are at risk – we mean it. It’s not abstract, it’s not hysteria, it’s not even #RoeVWade. Women are before a British court to face the world’s harshest punishment for abortion – life in prison.
‘We are appalled by these developments. It’s never right, it’s never in the public interest, and we won’t stop advocating until abortion is decriminalized and treated like a health care service. No woman deserves this.’