Call for Legal Reform After UK Woman is Jailed Under 1861 Abortion Law
The cases of several other women facing similar charges are working their way through UK courts. Another woman is set to stand trial later this year.

There have been calls for abortion law reforms in the UK after a woman was sentenced to 28 months in prison on Monday for carrying out an abortion after the legal term limit.

The 44-year-old mother of three was sentenced under a law passed in 1861 that carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, sparking calls for immediate legal reform across the political spectrum.

Abortion was legalised in the United Kingdom in 1967, and is legal up to 24 weeks, while any procedure after the 10-week mark must be carried out in a clinic or hospital.

However, in this case, Carla Foster procured abortion pills by misrepresenting the term of her pregnancy during a COVID-19 lockdown when access to abortion pills was relaxed.

She claimed that she was seven weeks’ pregnant whereas doctors concluded Foster’s foetus was between 32-34 weeks old at the time of her abortion. This means it had a strong chance of survival if it had been born in a medical facility.

However, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), the abortion care provider Foster misled about the term of her pregnancy to acquire the abortion pills, said it was “shocked and appalled” that the case had led to criminal charges, adding: “No woman can ever go through this again.”

“We are now seeing a mother of three prosecuted under laws that do not exist in the same way in any other country,” BPAS chief executive Clare Murphy told the BBC.

A law passed nearly two centuries ago applies in cases where a woman intentionally causes an abortion after the 24-week limit. Foster was initially charged with “child destruction” under the 1929 Infant Life Preservation Act, which she denied. She later plead guilty to charges under the Offences Against the Person Act passed in 1861.

The 162-year-old law states that women in the United Kingdom who use “unlawfully administered” medications to induce an abortion can be kept “in penal servitude for life”.

With another woman set to stand trial later this year,  lawmakers say action must be taken before another criminal prosecution occurs.

“Society has moved on, healthcare has moved on, and I think parliament has a role now to look at reforming our abortion laws,” said Labour MP Dame Diana Johnson, who has previously tried to repeal the 1861 act with a backbench bill.

“Removing the criminal law is a very sensible, reasonable step, but it’s not to deregulate abortion care and who can provide it.”

Mifepristone, the medication Foster used to terminate her pregnancy, is also at the centre of court battles in the United States as states seek to outlaw abortion pills following the repeal of Roe v. Wade.

Caroline Nokes, a conservative MP who chairs the Common Women and Equalities Committee told the BBC that parliament should “decide in the 21st century whether we should be relying on legislation that is centuries old”.

“This is not something that has been debated in any great detail for many years now,” Nokes said. “And cases like this, although tragic and thankfully very rare, throw into sharp relief that we are relying on legislation that is very out of date. It makes a case for the parliament to start looking at this issue in detail.”

A spokesperson for British Prime Minister Rushi Sunak said he was “not aware” of any plans to change the current approach to abortion.

“Our laws, as they stand, balance a woman’s right to access safe and legal abortions with the rights of an unborn child,” he said.

Asked to respond to the government’s statement on Sky News, veteran Labour MP Stella Creasy said it is “a bit worrying” that “the government does not even know that abortion is not legal in this country”.

“What many of us are worried about is that this could be the start of many more prosecutions and an attempt to chill a woman’s right to choose in the country,” Creasy said, noting that the cases of several other women facing similar charges to Foster are currently passing through UK courts. “Abortion is not a criminal matter, it’s a healthcare matter.”

Abortion is hotly contested in many parts of the world. While access to abortion has been eased in Colombia and Mexico in recent years, many US states have either banned abortions entirely or reduced the time in which women are able to get abortions. Florida, for example, recently made it illegal for a woman to get an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy when many women are not yet aware that they are pregnant.

Image Credits: Wei-te Wong.

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