UK abortion law: should it be reformed?

Campaigners, healthcare organisations and some MPs are calling for reform of UK abortion law after a woman was jailed for terminating her pregnancy after the legal limit during the first national lockdown.

Carla Foster, a mother of three, was between 32 and 34 weeks pregnant in May 2020 when she took abortion pills designed for terminations in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy. The foetus was stillborn.

Foster, 44, was initially charged with child destruction, which she denied, said the i news site. In March this year, she pleaded guilty to “administering drugs to procure abortion, contrary to the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act”, which still criminalises abortion in the UK and carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. Foster was sentenced to 28 months, and ordered to serve half the sentence in prison.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) argued that Foster provided false information during her remote medical appointment, saying she was seven weeks pregnant, according to Sky News.

Foster obtained the medication via the so-called “pills by post” scheme, introduced during lockdown for women to carry out abortions up to 10 weeks at home. It was made permanent last year despite opposition from some religious groups who raised concerns about a lack of safeguarding or on-hand doctors.

‘Apply the law as provided’

In sentencing at Stoke-on-Trent Crown Court, Judge Edward Pepperall rejected appeals from health organisations for a non-custodial sentence, saying it was the court’s duty to “apply the law as provided by Parliament”.

Cases like this are “exceptionally rare… complex and traumatic”, a CPS spokesperson told BBC News. “Our prosecutors have a duty to ensure that laws set by Parliament are properly considered and applied when making difficult charging decisions.”

The Abortion Act of 1967 legalised abortions in England, Scotland and Wales within the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. A termination can take place after 24 weeks if “the mother’s life is at risk or if the child will be severely disabled”, said i news. 

But the Victorian-era law was never repealed, “meaning that parts of it still apply – for example when a woman carries out an abortion over the time limit”, said the BBC. “The law is framed in a way that means abortion is not a right”, said Sky News

‘Desperate need for legal reform’

“It makes a case for Parliament to start looking at this issue in detail,” Caroline Nokes, Conservative MP and chair of the Women and Equalities select committee, told BBC Radio 4’s “World Tonight” programme. Cases like this “throw into sharp relief that we are relying on legislation that is very out of date”.

The case also underscores the “desperate need for legal reform in relation to reproductive health”, said Chiara Capraro, women’s human rights director at Amnesty International UK.

“No other healthcare procedure has such a status,” Labour MP Stella Creasy tweeted. “We need urgent reform to make safe access for all women in England, Scotland and Wales a human right.”

Creasy plans to table an amendment to the new Bill of Rights, similar to the one she had passed in 2019, which made abortion a human right in Northern Ireland.

Without reform of this “archaic law”, Clare Murphy, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme, more women and girls would face “the trauma of lengthy police investigations and the threat of prison”.

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