Activism

Thousands march for abortion reform on Saturday following jail sentence for mother

The action comes after a mother of three was sentences to two years in prison for having an abortion after the legal time period.

A protester holds a 'My body, my choice' placard.

Pro-choice protesters marched to the US Embassy in London in June 2022 as reports emerged that Roe v. Wade. Photo by Vuk Valcic/ZUMA Press Wire/Shutterstock

Thousands marched to demand reform in UK abortion law on Saturday after a mother of three was sentenced to two years in prison for taking abortion pills after the legal time period. 

Prosecutors said the woman knowingly misled the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) into sending abortion pills after the legal cut-off period, but the case has struck a chord across the nation. Campaigners and MPs have responded with outrage and social media is awash with shock that abortion is still criminalised in the UK.

“We want every party to have abortion reform in their manifestos before the next general election. And they can. It’s about political will,” said Mandu Reid, leader of the Women’s Equality Party, which is organising the march from the Royal Courts of Justice to Westminster on Saturday. “This is just the beginning. We will keep protesting for change.”

https://twitter.com/WEP_UK/status/1669744051434979328

Abortion law in Britain was last reformed In 1967 (2020 in Northern Ireland) but abortions are still illegal under the antiquated 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. The 1967 Abortion Act legalised terminations of pregnancies of up to 28 weeks (later reduced to 24 weeks), provided it was approved by two doctors. It transformed women’s healthcare and was a leap forward for reproductive rights.

Before that, the 1861 Offences against the Person Act meant that any woman who tried to have an abortion could get a life sentence. The Act, which was passed at a time when women didn’t have the vote and penicillin wouldn’t be discovered for another 68 years, has never been repealed, meaning a woman who has an unregulated abortion or attempts to terminate a pregnancy without medical supervision can be prosecuted. 

Doctors believe the woman prosecuted this week was between seven and eight months pregnant when she took abortion pills received by post. Abortion pills are legal up to 10 weeks of pregnancy after which a procedure is more often carried out in a hospital or clinic.

“The fact that a woman has been sent to prison for ending her own pregnancy cannot be in the public interest,” said Louise McCudden, head of external affairs at MSI Reproductive Choices UK, who said the case could cause a ripple effect of worry in those considering an abortion. 

“Abortion is already highly stigmatised and the decision to send the woman in this case to jail could add a huge amount of anxiety for many,” she added.

Another recent high-profile case came in 2021, when a 15-year-old girl who had suffered an unexplained early stillbirth was subject to a year-long criminal investigation under the 1861 law. 

Police were called by hospital staff who suspected she had taken a substance bought on the internet to end her pregnancy and searched her text and internet history. 

The case against the girl, who was studying for her GCSEs at the time, was dropped when postmortem tests found the baby had probably been stillborn because of natural causes. 

Jemima Olchawski, chief executive of Fawcett Society, questioned the logic behind the criminal investigations. 

“When we look at the prosecution for rape which is so devastatingly low, is it really the right choice and in the public interest to be investigating a 15 year old girl?” she asked.

Home Office data shows an increasing number of people in England and Wales are being investigated by the police over suspected illegal abortions, cases rising from 28 in 2020 to 40 in 2021, up from 8 cases in 2012.

Katherine O’Brien of BPAS  said her organisation has seen an increase in police requests for information investigating women they suspect of self-administering abortion pills after the 24-week cut off point. 

“It’s really worrying,” she added. 

During the pandemic, at-home abortion pills began to be offered to help facilitate women ending their pregnancies of up to 10 weeks, advancing access to abortion. But it’s come with the  consequence of treating women with suspicion. 

“It seems to be one step forward and two steps back”, O’Brien says.

Decriminalising abortion wouldn’t change the guidelines and criteria for who can get medical support for an abortion, campaigners urged, but any abortion which happens outside of those guidelines wouldn’t be considered a criminal act. 

“It wouldn’t change the entitlement to abortion but would mean we remove the risk of criminalising women where there is suspicion,” Olchawski explained.

“We cannot be complacent.” she added. “We need to be vigilant. We need to be coming together and say we value these rights, we will be watching and we will continue to fight.”

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