Doctors have called on MPs to decriminalise abortion as two women face life in prison for charges under archaic Victorian laws dating back to the 1860s.
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists today urged the government to change the law, arguing women should not face criminal charges for having abortions without the certification of two medics.
President Dr Edward Morris said women should be free to have an abortion without fear of prosecution.
This comes as a woman today revealed how she suffers flashbacks after spending two years in jail for taking abortion pills at home.
Two British women also face jail under an obscure 160-year-old law, accused of taking legal prescription drugs to ‘procure a miscarriage’.
The law in the UK currently allows abortions up to 24 weeks where two doctors agree there is a risk to the mother’s or existing children’s mental or physical health.
Although the 1967 Abortion Act legalises terminations in England, Wales and Scotland up to 23 weeks, neither the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act nor the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 were repealed.
This means women who have unregulated abortions or try to terminate their pregnancy without medical supervision can be charged with child destruction and face up to life imprisonment.
Stock Image: Women who do not get an abortion through medical professionals or outside of the legal time limit can still be prosecuted in England, Wales and Scotland – unlike in Northern Ireland
What are the UK’s laws on abortion?
Abortion Act 1967
Women are permitted to have an abortion up to 14 weeks where two doctors agree there is a risk to the mother’s or existing children’s mental or physical health.
In new legislation brought in in April 2020, women can now have a postal abortion at home up to 10 weeks.
Women who have abortions outside of these rules can still be prosecuted and sent to jail for life.
Where a woman’s life is at risk or the baby has a severe disability, there is no time limit on access to abortion.
Offences Against the Person Act 1861
Attempts to procure abortion are covered in the 1861 Act under two categories:
1. Administering drugs or using instruments to procure abortion
2. Procuring drugs to cause abortion
However, the 1967 Abortion Act made abortions legal if performed by a doctor, authorised by two doctors acting in good faith, and met at least one qualifying factor.
But it does not apply to Northern Ireland.
Until 2019, anyone carrying out an abortion in Northern Ireland, except under highly limited circumstances, could be jailed for life under the 1861 Act.
It was legalised under Section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019.
Infant Life (Preservation) Act
This act states that any person who destroys the life of a child capable of being born alive with intent can be subjected to conviction.
Under the Abortion Act 1967, abortion is legal when carried out in accordance with regulations including being carried out by registered practitioners and through medical practices such as those carried out by the NHS.
Dr Edward Morris told The Telegraph: ‘Women who may face charges are often in desperate or vulnerable situations, and the current legislation may further deter them from seeking the support and aftercare they need.
‘It is our belief that prosecuting a woman for ending their pregnancy will never be in the public interest.
‘To ensure that all women and girls are provided with support without fear of prosecution, abortion must be decriminalised, while remaining subject to the regulatory and professional standards of all other medical procedures,’ he told The Telegraph.
Other leading medical bodies such as the British Medical Association and the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (FSRH) have also called for abortion to be decriminalised.
Such changes would ensure women who had suffered a miscarriage could not be investigated for criminal activity, he added.
The government introduced the ‘Pills by Post’ legislation during the Covid pandemic, which allowed women up to ten weeks’ pregnant to receive aborting pills in the post to take at home following a remote consultation.
The at-home provisions became permanent in March after MPs voted to support an amendment to the Health and Care Bill.
If there is a fatal risk to mother or baby women in the UK can have an abortion up to full term.
Cases of illegal abortion in the UK generally are brought against women whose miscarriage but them in medical danger – for example if they are admitted to hospital and tell staff they have taken abortion pills.
In Northern Ireland, abortion was completely decriminalised after a referendum in 2018 – but provision is still patchy, with hundreds of women still having to make the journey to the UK since.
It comes as a woman who was jailed in the UK for having an abortion spoke out about her ordeal after she said she was threatened with a life sentence by the CPS.
Laura, 20, whose name has been changed, described taking pills which would initiate a miscarriage when she thought she was eight to ten weeks pregnant – but she didn’t see a doctor out of terror of her abusive boyfriend.
She said her irregular periods meant she did not know that she had actually been pregnant for 30 weeks.
After taking the pills Laura had to be taken to hospital after losing large amounts of blood due to the pregnancy being much farther along than she realised.
She told The Sunday Times: ‘I almost died. I remember the bath being filled with at least an inch of blood.
‘I wanted to die. Honestly, I just felt like the whole world had just ended in front of my eyes.’
Laura did not tell police or hospital staff about her boyfriend’s abuse because she was too frightened after he threatened to kill her in hospital.
She was sentenced to two years in jail after pleading guilty to having an illegal abortion in court.
Laura’s case is by no means unique – at least two other women in England are set to appear in court on this charge, and face hefty prison sentences if convicted.
A 25-year-old woman pleaded not guilty at Oxford Crown Court this year to administering Misoprostol, a drug used in abortions, with intent to procure a miscarriage. She was told via interpreter that she will stand trial in February next year.
She allegedly took the drug, which is one of two pills routinely prescribed by doctors to abort a pregnancy, in January last year.
The crime falls under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and carries a life sentence in prison.
Another woman is due to appear before Staffordshire Magistrates Court charged with child destruction under the Infant Life (Preservation) Act, which dates back to 1929.
The unnamed woman obtained pills from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (Bpas) during the coronavirus lockdown under legislation introduced during the pandemic.
It allowed women up to ten weeks’ pregnant to receive aborting pills in the post to take at home following a remote consultation.
After the woman took the pills, she delivered a 28-week foetus and was reported to the police. She also faces a life sentence if convicted.
There are also fears amongst some doctors that women who have a natural miscarriage or still-birth face investigations because they previously considered a termination.
MPs such as Labour’s Jess Phillips have already called for urgent changes. Ms Phillips, who previously spoke about her experience of having an abortion in the House of Commons, has called UK laws ‘backwards and draconian’.
Polling by YouGov shows that only one in four people in the UK can accurately pick, from a range of options, what the UK’s abortion laws are.
Senior UK doctors have said continued prosecutions may deter women experiencing miscarriages and incomplete abortions from seeking treatment when needed.
Medics, lawyers and charity workers earlier this month signed a letter to the Director of Public Prosecutions, Max Hill QC, urging him to stop taking women to court for ending their pregnancies.
The letter calls for all current proceedings to be stopped and that no future charges are brought against women or girls who end a pregnancy or experience pregnancy loss.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service shared the letter on their social media, which read: ‘We believe that, in 2022, it is never in the public interest to charge women who end their own pregnancy, and that no woman should face investigation or prosecution for ending a pregnancy or experiencing unexpected or unexplained pregnancy loss.’
In a tweet, they added: ‘When we say that women’s reproductive rights are under threat – this is what we mean. It’s not abstract, it’s not hysteria, it’s not even #RoeVWade. It’s women being hauled in front of British courts to face the harshest penalty for abortion in the world – life in prison.
‘We’re horrified by these developments. It is never right, it is never in the public interest, and we will never stop advocating until abortion is removed from the criminal law and treated like the healthcare it is. No woman deserves this.’