Rising prosecutions highlight concerns over abortion laws in the UK

A woman, whose identity is protected for legal reasons, has faced court charges for an alleged illegal abortion, marking the fifth reported prosecution this year, as reported by The Times.

The accusation centres on her procurement of abortion drugs, mifepristone and misoprostol, with the intent to induce a miscarriage during the November 2020 lockdown. Under section 58 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, this offense is being pursued, and it has raised alarms among campaigners and experts who assert a concerning trend of increased prosecutions related to abortions.

In recent times, three additional cases involving suspected illegal terminations are making their way through the criminal justice system. Earlier this year, a woman was convicted for carrying out an illegal abortion. Remarkably, in the 160 years since the legislation regulating abortion in England and Wales was introduced, only three prior prosecutions are known to have occurred.

During a recent hearing at Westminster magistrates’ court in central London, the woman’s defence lawyer noted the extensive media attention surrounding the case and mentioned that other women facing similar charges have been subjected to death threats.

Recognizing the high-profile nature of the case, the judge granted an interim order protecting the woman’s identity. An additional application for her anonymity will be presented by the defence during the next court session, scheduled for the following month.

The accused woman, who did not enter a plea, was granted unconditional bail. A tentative date has been set for the case to be heard at Isleworth court in west London.

Another recent case involved 22-year-old Bethany Cox, who appeared at Teesside crown court, accused of an illegal abortion in July 2020. She pleaded not guilty to charges of child destruction and unlawfully administering poison or another harmful substance with the intent to induce her own miscarriage. Her trial is set for early next year.

In July, Carla Foster, 45, was released from prison after serving about a month in custody. Her initial 28-month sentence, imposed at Stoke crown court, was reduced by the Court of Appeal. Foster had confessed to taking abortion pills to induce a miscarriage during the first Covid lockdown, when she was between 32 and 34 weeks pregnant. The reduced sentence, with suspension, came with a statement emphasizing the need for compassion rather than punishment in such cases.

Sophie Harvey, 23, is set to stand trial at Gloucester crown court in November alongside her partner Elliot Benham, also 23. They have both pleaded not guilty to charges related to procuring drugs from India for the purpose of inducing a miscarriage and concealing the birth of a child. Harvey faces an additional charge of self-inducing her miscarriage.

Another case, linked to an alleged illegal abortion, is also scheduled for November, with the defendants protected by reporting restrictions.

MPs and campaigners concerned about the apparent increase in prosecutions have been advocating for a change in the law. They argue that abortion should be treated as a medical procedure, removed from the criminal statute books, and regulated accordingly.

Last year, a coalition of protesters addressed Max Hill KC, the director of public prosecutions, with a joint letter calling for “urgent guidance to stop the prosecution of women who end their own pregnancies, with immediate effect.”

Signatories included charities, doctors, and lawyers. In response, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) indicated that abortion cases would undergo higher-level review before charging decisions were made.

The Labour MP Stella Creasy said:

“Women continue to be prosecuted and investigated under a law that criminalises having an abortion itself. That’s why sentencing guidelines are not the answer but decriminalisation is, because only then can we regulate and authorise access to abortion as a medical, not criminal, matter and so stop the risk that women who have experienced baby loss face the police at their door.”

A government spokeswoman said:

“Abortion is an extremely sensitive issue and we recognise the strongly held views on all sides of the debate.

Decisions to prosecute in England and Wales are for the CPS and we are clear that any change to the law would be a matter of conscience for individual MPs rather than the government.

Through the Abortion Act 1967, all women have access to safe abortions on the NHS, up to 24 weeks. This now includes taking abortion pills at home.”

Want to have your say? Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read more stories

Join nearly 3,000 other family practitioners - Check back daily for all the latest news, views, insights and best practice and sign up to our e-newsletter to receive our weekly round up every Thursday morning. 

You’ll receive the latest updates, analysis, and best practice straight to your inbox.