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Abortion is still illegal in England. We must stop criminalising vulnerable women

The sentencing of a woman to 28 months for taking an abortion pill after the legally mandated period highlights a problem: Abortion is still illegal by default. We need a new, straightforward abortion law that treats it as a healthcare issue first and foremost. 

June 12 2023, 15.41pm

A woman has been sentenced to 28 months in prison after pleading guilty to procuring drugs to obtain an abortion – breaking Britain’s archaic and outdated abortion laws. The shock sentence is cruel even in its own right. But it also demonstrates the urgency of explicitly decriminalising abortion and recognising it as a matter of healthcare – not criminal law. 

The woman had obtained abortion drugs to end a pregnancy when the foetus was between 32 and 34 weeks. The Crown’s case was that the woman knew she was over the legal time limit, and knowingly provided false information to the abortion provider.

Contrary to what many of us believe, terminating a pregnancy remains a criminal offence in Britain, and is only legally permitted under the exemptions outlined in the 1967 Abortion Act. Among these is the requirement for two doctors to affirm that continuing a pregnancy will be more detrimental to a woman’s physical and emotional health than having a termination. Until a change triggered by the pandemic, the law also demanded that the abortion – including the ingestion of pills in a medical abortion – took place on medical premises.

The woman, who is a mother of three children, obtained the abortion in the first coronavirus lockdown. Her sentencing comes after another woman was charged with “unlawfully administering Misoprostol, a labour-inducing medication often used for abortions”. But in contrast to today’s sentencing, the case was dropped last year after the judge said he was “flabbergasted” it was pursued in the first place. The Times newspaper reported that 11 people had been reported to the police in 2021, accused of illegally procuring an abortion. 

The decision to jail a woman for breaking Britain’s archaic abortion laws is one that escalates an already dangerous status quo which puts women’s reproductive health and basic access to human rights at risk. Those struggling to access an abortion risk continue to face a life-jail term simply for exercising their right to bodily autonomy. 

These include women who may be struggling to access abortion services in a timely manner and therefore resort to taking pills illegally. Medical abortion is only recommended in the first trimester, but delays to treatment can put pressure on women facing a biological deadline. In particular, a shortage of surgical abortion providers has led to women missing out on getting a termination before the upper-time limit kicks in. The continuing criminal framework that governs abortion can deter doctors from training in this area of women’s health, with stigma creating gaps in care. 

The result is women in urgent need of abortion being denied the procedure: research carried out by BPAS found that dozens of British women were denied abortion care before 24 weeks in 2016 and 2017. 

A second at-risk group are migrant women who are subject to NHS charging. An investigation undertaken by this reporter in 2022 revealed that migrant women had paid £29,000 in NHS charges over five years in order to access abortion care. While the majority of women paid between £300-£600, some women faced charges of more than £1,000 – far exceeding the costs of buying pills illegally online. 

A pro-abortion country

These are the current challenges women face. But the continued criminalisation of abortion in Britain presents future risks too. 

The UK is overwhelmingly a pro-abortion country. A 2022 survey found that nearly three-quarters (71%) of respondents agreed that “if a woman does not want to continue a pregnancy, she should be able to have an abortion”. However, the decision to treat abortion as a criminal, not healthcare, issue, means that it is easy to increase stigma around the procedure.

At the same time, the current criminal framework allows for a chipping away at abortion access. We have already seen attacks on doctors deemed to be pre-signing letters allowing women to have abortions. 

And while the population is overwhelmingly pro-choice, Parliament is disproportionately antagonistic to women’s human rights. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has previously voted on reducing the upper-time limit for abortion. Home Secretary Suella Braverman has repeatedly voted against abortion rights, although she did vote in favour of intervening in order to commission services in Northern Ireland, as has anti-woke Tory-right favourite Kemi Badenoch. 

Prominent Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg has been outspoken on his opposition to abortion. He’s joined by numerous MPs , ncluding Health Minister Maria Caulfield, spokesperson for religious freedom Fiona Bruce, Danny Kruger, and former Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Nadine Dorries. Former Health Secretary Therese Coffey tabled an early day motion designed to delay abortion access earlier in her Parliamentary career. 

Progress - but not enough

There is some good news. Despite the regressive decision to sentence women obtaining abortions outside the legal exemptions, we have seen important progress on abortion rights in the UK over the past few years.

The first was the vote to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland – Northern Ireland was never included in the 1967 Abortion Act and abortions were illegal up until a Westminster vote in 2019. The change means abortion is now available on demand, making its system technically more liberal than the rest of the UK, however in practice issues remain in terms of provision of care.

Another example of progress was the decision to allow women to take abortion pills at home, with the permission of two doctors. And the Government finally approved buffer zones around abortion clinics, protecting those attending appointments from harassment and so-called ‘counselling’ that uses disinformation designed to manipulate women out of accessing reproductive healthcare.

Progress… but not enough. While abortion remains a criminal offence, women and pregnant people will struggle to access the reproductive healthcare they urgently need – and the future of abortion rights remain at risk. 

The sentencing today is a wake-up call to how women cannot have access to their full human rights so long as abortion is criminalised in the law. What’s needed now is to flip the scales. Abortion needs to be entirely legal in every part of the UK. We need abortion reform now. Every delay leaves women vulnerable to the disastrous shortcoming of the current status quo – and to the misogynistic, deadly onslaught of the anti-abortion Right. 

Take action:

  • Sign our petition: Abortion Reform Now 
  • Tell your MP to support the BPAS campaign for abortion reform 
  • Join the march next Saturday to reform abortion laws