Dozens of women accused of illegal abortions face police investigations

Women who have abortions after legal cut-off are ‘always in desperately vulnerable situations and are victims not criminals,’ prominent doctor warns

Maya Oppenheim
Women’s Correspondent
Wednesday 28 June 2023 10:37 BST
<p>The latest Home Office data show the number of Britons being investigated by police over suspected illegal abortions has more than tripled in the last decade</p>

The latest Home Office data show the number of Britons being investigated by police over suspected illegal abortions has more than tripled in the last decade

Dozens of women suspected of having illegal abortions have faced criminal investigations from the police in recent years, new figures show.

Information obtained under freedom of information (FOI) laws reveal at least 36 women endured criminal investigations after being accused of having illegal abortions from April 2014 to December 2021.

The data, obtained by National World and based on responses from 35 police forces, looked at recorded crimes for the two charges of procuring an illegal abortion and the intentional destruction of a viable unborn child.

It comes after Carla Foster, 44, was sentenced to 28 months in jail earlier in the month, having obtained drugs to end her pregnancy at 32 to 34 weeks during lockdown.

Dr Jonathon Lord, who represented medical organisations in the case, told The Independent the sentencing of the mother-of-three “brought back the horrors of the 1960s”.

The consultant NHS gynaecologist at the Royal Cornwall Hospitals NHS Trust added: “The really big fear is that we know the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) are sitting on lots more cases - waiting to see whether this one would be jailed and thereby prove a public interest in prosecuting.

“So we now expect anything between six to 40 proceeding - it is so hard to know numbers as it’s all so secretive. We don't know if these cases will be charged. Another issue is that patients are told to speak to nobody. So one woman had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for over six months before we heard she’d had a premature delivery that arose suspicion.”

Dr Lord explained the CPS evidence in the recent headline-grabbing case involving Foster included the fact she searched for ways to cause physical harm such as “Can being hit in the stomach cause a miscarriage?”, adding this demonstrates “she was so desperate she was even considering self-harm”.

Dr Lord noted she had been imprisoned under a law from 1861 - “an era when public hangings drew large crowds and 67 years before women were able to vote”.

The latest Home Office data show the number of Britons being investigated by police over suspected illegal abortions has more than tripled in the last decade.

Recorded crimes for abortions surged from eight in 2013/2014 to 27 cases in April to December 2022 so far.

This includes recorded crimes for 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.

Some of the cases included in the government data could relate to investigations into abusive partners forcing a woman into having an abortion, those who sell abortion pills, and individuals whose violence against a woman or person with a womb causes them to lose their pregnancy.

Earlier in the month, Stoke-on-Trent Crown Court heard Foster was between 32 to 34 weeks pregnant when she took the abortion pills – with Justice Pepperall saying she felt “very deep and genuine remorse”, was “racked with guilt” and still had nightmares over her actions.

Kate Osborne, a Labour MP who sits on the women and equalities committee, told The Independent the imprisonment of Foster was a “disgrace” and was “perverse” as she called for abortion care to be decriminalised.

“This case shows that the current legislation is unsafe for women and could potentially open the door for more prosecutions,” she added.

Labour MP Stella Creasy, an outspoken campaigner for abortion rights, noted “no other healthcare service sits on a criminal foundation” as warned “it’s time to treat all patients equally and introduce a proper medical framework to guide access rather than use the threat of prosecution to deter it.”

A spokesperson for the CPS said: “These exceptionally rare cases are complex and traumatic. Our prosecutors have a duty to ensure that laws set by parliament are properly considered and applied when making difficult charging decisions.”

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