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Are Your Rights To Abortion In U.K. Safe?

BREAKING NEWS: A mother who was sentenced to 28 months for illegally ending their pregnancy is to be released from prison.


On Monday 12th June 2023, a court in Stoke-on-Trent, United Kingdom, sentenced Carla Foster, 44, to 28 months for having caused her own miscarriage by taking abortion pills when she was in her eighth month of pregnancy. The sentence includes up to 14 months in prison, after which she could serve the rest of her term on release if she meets certain conditions.

In early 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic, Ms. Foster, a mother of three, had moved back in with her long-term but estranged partner after becoming pregnant by another man, according to court documents. The judge, Edward Brian Pepperall, wrote in his sentencing remarks that Ms. Foster had been in emotional turmoil as she sought to hide the pregnancy. She also repeatedly searched online for information about how to terminate her pregnancy in the first months of 2020, according to the judge.

That May, she obtained abortion drugs by mail after giving false information to Britain’s pregnancy advisory service. Although abortion pills are available by mail through the service in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, Ms. Foster’s internet searches indicated that she knew she was more than 24 weeks pregnant, the legal limit for most abortions. Shortly after she took the drugs, her pregnancy ended in a stillbirth, according to the court.

Marvellous Tip: Be aware that detailing your menstrual cycle via an app could mean that your data will be legally available to the courts as evidence of your knowledge of where you are in your menstrual cycle. This data, as seen above, even your internet history can be requested by the court and used against you.

Paramedics were on the scene, and Ms. Foster told them that she understood that she would be required to speak to the police. A post-mortem examination confirmed that the pregnancy was between 32 and 34 weeks, with a full-term pregnancy being about 40 weeks, or nine months.

Ms. Foster initially pleaded not guilty, but this March she pleaded guilty to a charge of “administering poison with intent to procure a miscarriage.” The judge wrote in his decision that Ms. Foster was a good mother to her three children, including one with special needs, and he acknowledged that they would suffer from their mother’s imprisonment. In handing down the sentence, the judge wrote, “The balance struck by the law between a woman’s reproductive rights and the rights of her unborn foetus is an emotive and often controversial issue.”

Photo of a woman with a positive pregnancy test sitting on her bare legs.

What are England’s abortion laws?

Abortion has been legal in England, Scotland and Wales since the Abortion Act of 1967 and access to the procedure is generally liberal. Abortions are allowed in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy and must be approved by two doctors.

In the first 10 weeks, women can get an abortion by having two drugs prescribed to them, which in earlier years would have typically required a visit to a clinic. During the Covid pandemic, when securing in-person services became both difficult and dangerous, the British government ruled that the drugs could be provided without an in-person appointment. That decision was made permanent last August.

Later-term abortions are allowed in some exceptional cases, including when the woman’s health is in danger or in some cases of fetal abnormality. Yet when Parliament passed the 1967 legislation allowing for abortions, it did not repeal an earlier law that had criminalised them. In rare cases, therefore, abortion can still be prosecuted as a criminal act. Under a law passed in 1861, any woman who takes “poison” with an intent to cause her own foetus’s miscarriage “shall be guilty of felony” and liable “to be kept in penal servitude for life.”

This was the law under which Ms. Foster was sentenced, and hers is not an isolated case. In his ruling, Judge Pepperall cited a 2013 decision in which a British court sentenced a woman to three and a half years in prison for causing her own miscarriage while about 38 weeks pregnant. And Stella Creasy, a lawmaker in the opposition Labour Party, said on BBC Two’s “Newsnight” current-affairs show, that there had been 67 investigations under the 1861 act in the past decade.

People are still being tried and convicted under the Offences Against The Person Act from 1861 for abortions that do not fulfil the criteria set out in the Abortion Act of 1967. Some groups and charities are now pushing for abortion to be completely decriminalised in the UK. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) and the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (FSRH) published a policy statement renewing calls for the government to take action on this matter.

Northern Ireland Laws

In Northern Ireland, the laws governing abortion were historically more restrictive compared to the rest of the United Kingdom. However, significant changes have occurred in recent years.

Before 2019, abortion in Northern Ireland was highly restricted and generally illegal except in cases where the woman’s life was at risk or posed a serious threat to her physical or mental health. This included cases of fatal fetal abnormalities and pregnancies resulting from sexual offenses.

In 2019, the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act was passed by the UK Parliament, decriminalizing abortion in Northern Ireland. The key changes introduced by this Act include:

  1. Grounds for abortion: Abortion is now permitted without restriction up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.
  2. Beyond 12 weeks: Abortion is available up to 24 weeks in cases where the woman’s physical or mental health is at risk. There is also provision for abortions beyond 24 weeks if there is a risk to the woman’s life or serious fetal abnormalities are detected.
  3. Medical supervision: Abortions can be performed by registered medical professionals in approved healthcare settings.

It’s important to note that while the law has changed, access to abortion services in Northern Ireland is still being established and may vary across different regions. Women seeking abortion services in Northern Ireland should consult healthcare providers or relevant organisations for accurate and up-to-date information.

What did medical experts say?

Some medical professionals also lobbied against sending Ms. Foster to prison, a penalty that they said might discourage other women from seeking access to abortion pills at home. The court said it had received a letter from the president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists as well as other medical bodies urging a noncustodial sentence. The judge responded that it was inappropriate for medical professionals to send such a letter, and that if they disagreed with the law, they should lobby Parliament to change it rather than judges who are charged with applying it.

‘Painful day’

Mandu Reid, leader of the Women’s Equality Party, condemned the prosecution and sentencing, calling it a “painful day” for women. She told Yahoo News UK: “I want to send my support and my solidarity to the woman shamefully deprived of her freedom today, to her children, who will be missing their mum, and to everyone currently under police investigation or undergoing court proceedings regarding an abortion. “Today is a painful day.” A woman in England has been criminalised for seeking healthcare in the middle of a pandemic. Now she has been sentenced to over two years in prison.

Labour MP Stella Creasy said the case was ‘an attack on women’s rights’ and called for reform of abortion laws. “It is an hangover from another era that our abortion laws are based not on healthcare considerations, but first and foremost criminal sanctions.“ This case shows that the failure to address this has very real modern day implications. “In the light of repeated attacks on women’s rights and the lack of compassion this case shows, its never been more urgent to ensure it is a formal human right of all women in the UK to access a safe, legal and local abortion if she chooses.”

The Emergence of Abortion Pills

The emergence of abortion pills has been a revolutionary event in the reproductive rights of women. The pills are a much safer and more effective way of managing an unwanted pregnancy than traditional methods, as it does not require the use of surgical instruments, nor does it present any risks or side effects. It also allows for a much higher degree of privacy, allowing women to make their own decisions without any outside interference. Abortion pills work by blocking the hormones necessary for the development of the food, resulting in the termination of the pregnancy and the expulsion of the embryo. They can be taken up to 24 weeks into the pregnancy, and have been found to be safe and effective for women in a range of different medical situations.

Controversy Surrounding Abortion Pills

Despite being a much safer and less invasive form of terminating an unwanted pregnancy, there remains much controversy surrounding the use of abortion pills, particularly in the U.K. where there is a strict legal limit of 24 weeks. This limit has sparked debates between those who believe the law should remain in place, and those who argue that women should have the right to choose their own destiny.

This case highlights the clash between the regulations of the law, and the personal beliefs and needs of individuals who may find themselves in the difficult and confusing situation of an unwanted pregnancy. It is a poignant reminder of the difficult situation that people can find themselves in, and of the restrictions that the law places on those who choose to take abortion pills.

Potential Legal Challenges

The case of the 44 year old mother of three has raised questions over the legality of abortion pills, and whether the law should be amended to include exceptions for extreme cases.

It is clear that the existing laws are outdated, and there is a need for reform to ensure that women are given the right to choose their own destiny. However, such reforms present a range of potential legal challenges. It is not clear how changing the law would affect the existing legal framework, and there is a risk that it could open the door to more people taking abortion pills without proper medical advice. It is therefore important for any potential reform to be carefully considered, and any changes implemented in a way that ensures the safety and wellbeing of the woman involved.

The criminalisation of abortion remains a heated and controversial topic around the world, and this case has highlighted the need for further reform of the existing laws in the U.K. Nonetheless, it is clear that abortion pills still remain a safe and effective way of terminating an unwanted pregnancy, and should be made available to those who need them.

USA Overturning of Rowe v Wade

In June 2022, the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade, on the grounds that the substantive right to abortion was not “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history or tradition”, nor considered a right when the Due Process Clause was ratified in 1868, and was unknown in U.S. law until Roe. This view was disputed by some legal historians and criticised by the dissenting opinion, which argued that many other rights—contraception, interracial marriage, and same-sex marriage—did not exist when the Due Process Clause was ratified in 1868, and thus, by the Dobbs majority’s logic, were not constitutionally protected.

This means that states can now ban abortion. Some states have banned abortion or created lots of restrictions. But abortion is still legal in many states, and it’s legal to go to a different state to get an abortion. Abortion is NOT banned nationwide.

2021 Highest Rate Of Abortions in U.K.

There were 214,869 terminations during 2021, the highest number since the procedure became legal in Great Britain through the 1967 Abortion Act. Numbers have been going up every year since 2016.

“The pandemic, and the policies adopted by the government in response, have had a clear impact on women’s pregnancy choices,” said Clare Murphy, the chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), a major abortion provider. “Faced with economic uncertainty and job insecurity, women and their partners have been making sometimes tough decisions around continuing or ending a pregnancy.”

The new abortion figures also show that:

  •  By age group the abortion rate was highest among 22-year-old women, at 31 per 1,000.
  •  Abortion rates are highest in the north-west at 22 per 1,000 women aged 15-44, and lowest in the south-west at 15.4 per 1,000 women aged 15-44.
  •  99% of abortions were NHS-funded, though private providers performed 77% of them.
  •  161 women from Northern Ireland travelled to England or Wales for an abortion last year, even though the procedure was decriminalised in their home country in 2019.

The increase in the abortion rate was most pronounced among 30- to 34-year-old women. Over the last decade it has risen significantly from 17.2 per 1,000 in 2011 to 22.1 per 1,000 last year.

However, rates are stable among women aged 35 and over, and are going down among under-18s.

Four-fifths (82%) of those having an abortion gave their marital status as single, although 49% said they were single but had a partner.

Growing numbers of women having a termination were already mothers – 57% last year, up from 51% in 2011.

People are still being tried and convicted under the Offences Against The Person Act from 1861 for abortions that do not fulfil the criteria set out in the Abortion Act of 1967. Some groups and charities are now pushing for abortion to be completely decriminalised in the UK. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) and the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (FSRH) published a policy statement renewing calls for the government to take action on this matter.

“I think people should be a lot more worried about this than they are,” said Dr Janet Barter, president of the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare.

“I think Roe versus Wade shocked all of us. I don’t think anyone really thought that could happen. And if it can happen in the States, it could happen here.”

This weeks sentencing has shaken the country, so where we all thought our right to abortion is protected this latest case proves it could also be a “life in prison” criminal matter.

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