Rarely used law carries threat of life imprisonment

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The Independent Online
REGINALD DIXON faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment if he is found guilty of unlawfully procuring a miscarriage.

Diane Munday, an abortion law reform campaigner, said the charge was an unusual application of Section 58 of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which was now used rarely and mainly reserved for abortionists operating outside the law.

Section 58 makes it an offence unlawfully to use an instrument or some unknown means with intent to procure a miscarriage. It was frequently used before abortion was legalised in 1967.

Since then it had been used to prosecute abortionists who failed to follow legal requirements. 'It has been used against doctors only once or twice, but I think this is a unique set of circumstances,' Mrs Munday said. The case is the latest in a series of controversial uses of Section 58.

In 1977, Section 58 was used against a girl of 13 from Leamington Spa who tried to give herself a miscarriage by taking six laxative tablets and sitting in a hot bath. The attempt failed but the child was stillborn. The girl was placed under a two-year supervision order. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service said at the time that it meant Section 58 could be invoked against any woman who took a stiff gin after missing a period.

In 1983, the anti-abortion group Life argued that morning-after pills were illegal under Section 58 because they procured miscarriages by preventing the implantation of the fertilised egg in the womb. But Sir Michael Havers, the Attorney General, disagreed, saying that failure of a fertilised egg to implant in the womb could occur naturally.

In 1987, Life argued that Section 58 was being contravened by test-tube pioneers who implanted a large number of live embryos in a womb and killed surplus ones, to leave one or two.

In 1991, a doctor was accused of procuring his secretary's miscarriage by fitting her with a contraceptive coil 11 days after they had sexual intercourse in a hotel. The trial collapsed after the judge ruled that in 1861, when the Offences Against the Person Act was passed, the mechanics of a woman's reproductive organs were not as well understood as they were in 1991. The woman could not have been pregnant 'in the true sense of the word' when the coil was fitted.