Fears for vulnerable women amid rise in Britons investigated over illegal abortions by police

‘Women face distress of investigation then often wait years to learn if they will be charged,’ leading gynaecologist says

Maya Oppenheim
Women’s Correspondent
Friday 19 August 2022 18:39 BST
Related: ‘I had an abortion’: Irish mother-of-two who travelled to England for a termination shares her story

Increasing numbers of Britons are being investigated by police over suspected illegal abortions, new figures show.

The latest Home Office data for England and Wales shows recorded crimes for abortions rose from 28 in 2020 to 40 in 2021 and were up from just eight cases in 2012.

While the data does not provide a breakdown of the gender of those accused, experts fear there is an “upward trend” of vulnerable women facing criminal probes.

Jonathan Lord, medical director of MSI Reproductive Choices, one of the UK’s leading abortion providers, warned the situation was “very disturbing and chilling”.

Have you been affected by this story? If so email maya.oppenheim@independent.co.uk

The most recent government data includes recorded crimes for the three separate charges of procuring an illegal abortion, the intentional destruction of a viable unborn child and concealing an infant death pre-birth. While the first two charges are punishable by life imprisonment, the latter carries a three-year prison sentence.

Dr Lord, the co-chair of the British Society of Abortion Care Providers, noted the first of these charges dates back to 1861, while the second was created in 1929, and the third also originates from 1861.

He added: “These archaic laws are completely unfit for purpose and we are calling for them to be repealed and for abortion care to be managed through healthcare regulation like every other medical treatment. Abortions are unique in that they are criminalised.”

Some of the cases included in the government data could relate to investigations into abusive partners forcing a woman into having an abortion.

But Dr Lord said: “We fear most cases will involve investigations into women. It does seem to be an upward trend. It is very disturbing and chilling.

“Women face the cruelty and distress of being investigated after a pregnancy loss or after ending their pregnancy, often waiting for years to know whether they will be charged and face trial.”

Dr Lord, a consultant gynaecologist at the Royal Cornwall Hospitals NHS Trust, said the increasing number of investigations was an “unfortunate” by-product of the fact “increasing numbers of women are opting for medical abortions”, warning this has meant “suspicions have been raised with prosecutors and police”.

A medical abortion involves taking two pills, while a surgical abortion involves a medical procedure under general or local anaesthetic.

Prior to the pandemic, getting the first abortion tablet, mifepristone, required a visit to an abortion clinic. But due to Covid restrictions, the government allowed the medication to be sent by post to be taken at home after a phone consultation, a system referred to as “telemedicine”. While abortions are safe, it is better to have the procedure earlier on in the pregnancy.

Government data shows 14 per cent of abortions were medical in 2002, while 87 per cent of abortions were medically induced in 2021.

Dr Lord noted that as awareness of medical abortions has grown, pregnancy losses have been treated with increasing suspicion due to the awareness someone may have been able to induce an abortion by themselves.

He added: “The law was originally created when medical abortion didn't exist. It was there to protect women against backstreet surgical abortions which are always going to be unsafe, whereas medical abortions are obviously designed to be safe.

“The same law still applies. Having a medical abortion at any stage in the pregnancy is usually safe.”

Dr Lord called for healthcare professionals not to report women they suspect of having illegal abortions to the police, suggesting that doing so breaches patient-doctor confidentiality agreements as well as damaging women’s trust in doctors.

He believed the rise in investigations has been “fuelled” in recent years by “abortion opponents” being “so vehemently against abortion at home”.

Dr Lord added: “The first thought from the authorities if there is an unusual stillbirth, which could well have happened completely naturally, maybe that it could have been induced by abortion pills.

“It has a chilling effect on how willing patients are to seek healthcare and how much they can trust medical teams. They then think information they give in confidence could be used against them and forwarded to the police.”

Dr Lord stated that the healthcare sector is “very clear” in its position that reporting women to the police who are suspected of having an unregulated abortion is never in the public interest.

He called for abortion laws in the UK to immediately be repealed and “for those who have been convicted to be recognised as victims and to have their convictions quashed”.

Abortions are still deemed a criminal act in England, Scotland and Wales under the 1967 Abortion Act and any woman who ends a pregnancy without getting legal permission from two doctors, who must agree that continuing with it would be risky for the woman’s physical or mental health, can face up to life imprisonment. Medical professionals who deliver an abortion out of the terms of the act can face criminal punishment.

Commenting on the figures, Katherine O’Brien, of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), told The Independent that the rolling out of at-home early medical abortions had increased some people’s suspicions.

She noted while the public’s awareness of the fact abortion law is criminalised is still fairly low, in the past decade there has been greater recognition of how the law works, partly due to BPAS campaigning to repeal the law.

Ms O’Brien added: “This filters through to those who want to see women prosecuted. We are experiencing police contacting BPAS for client records and going on fishing expeditions when they have no evidence of wrongdoing. They are trying to find that evidence from suspicion, rather than it being rooted in fact.

“I want to stress this is an upward trend in vulnerable women facing lengthy criminal investigations and unless there is action from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and parliamentarians, this is only going to worsen and more women will face criminalisation and criminal investigation.”

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) and the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (FSRH) recently released a statement demanding the UK government decriminalise abortion.

It comes after The Independent reported claims a woman was kept in police custody for 36 hours after having a stillbirth because of suspicions she had an abortion after the legal cut-off point.

UK abortion providers, who supported the woman, denied she had flouted the legal deadline and warned the treatment she endured “should be unthinkable in a civilised society”, with “no conceivable” public interest in holding her.

Meanwhile, the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade – the landmark decision that legalised abortion nationwide in 1973 – at the end of June. Millions of women in America have subsequently lost their legal right to terminate a pregnancy.

Representatives for NHS England and the National Police Chiefs Council have been contacted for comment.

A CPS spokesperson said: “Deciding to end your own pregnancy is not a decision taken lightly. Those doing so are often vulnerable, in need of support, and some may have mental health problems.

“Our prosecutors take all of these factors into account when taking extremely difficult decisions, in accordance with our legal test.

“The CPS’s role is to ensure the law created by parliament is properly considered and applied in each and every case that is referred to us.”

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