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Women are being prosecuted - the laws must change

GP and member of Doctors for Choice UK, Dr Sonia Adesara, on why we need urgent abortion legislation reform.

Dr Sonia Adesara is a GP and a spokesperson for Doctors for Choice UK, a group of medical professionals seeking to extend abortion access rights in the UK and to fully decriminalise terminations.

As we see a startling rise in the number of women prosecuted for ending their own pregnancies, she makes the case for rapid legal change.

This week, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists – the professional body representing doctors working in women's health care – put out some guidance. Here, the experts leading the institution reiterated the importance of healthcare professionals putting their patients first and respecting their confidentiality.

That people accessing health services have a right to confidentiality isn't new, of course. So why did the body feel compelled to do so? It's due to the worrying increase we're seeing of women being prosecuted for suspected illegal abortions. Partly, this is being driven by medical staff reporting cases in which they believe women may have taken abortion pills past the legal limit to the authorities.

A lot of people might not realise that abortion remains a criminal offence in this country. Yes, you can have an abortion, but it has to happen under strict legal stipulations. Namely: two doctors have to agree that it can happen; it must happen under certain time limits, and if it happens, it must occur in certain premises.

'Abortion remains a criminal offence in this country'

If women are suspected of having an abortion outside of those legal parameters – say, by taking the pills which induce medical abortion beyond the legal limit – then they can be they can be arrested and potentially prosecuted. This is very much happening. Last year, six women were taken to court and one woman was imprisoned. [After much campaigning, the mother of three was freed following the reduction of her sentence by The Court of Appeal].

The Abortion Act 1967 states that a termination can take place within the first 24 weeks of pregnancy in England, Scotland and Wales. However, under Section 58 of the Offence Against the Person Act 1861, it is illegal for a woman to take abortion pills to cause a miscarriage after the 24-week limit.

Some are having their lives toppled without doing anything outside of the law. In 2021, a 15-year-old girl was investigated by police after a stillbirth at 28 weeks. She was accused of an illegal abortion and was put through a year-long investigation; her laptop and phone confiscated for analysis over her GCSEs. This concluded with the coroner finding that her pregnancy had ended due to natural causes.

The same year, abortion providers claimed that a woman was arrested and kept in a police cell for 36 hours after a stillbirth at 24 weeks, due to suspicions she had used abortion pulls past the legal limit.

In 2024, it looks like four women are going to be taken to trial for suspected illegal abortions. Myself and many other healthcare professionals believe this is completely wrong. We strongly disagree with the idea that any women should be arrested or imprisoned for choosing to end a pregnancy.

'The current law pertaining to abortion dates back to the 1800s'

The current law pertaining to abortion dates back to the 1800s. When it is enforced, this law can carry a maximum sentence of life in prison. It's this which I, and many other healthcare professionals, believe needs urgent reform. It is outdated, out of step with modern society and is causing egregious harm to women and their loved ones.

I can't think of a single circumstance in which it is in anyone's best interest to imprison a woman for having an abortion. It is a safe medical procedure, it is healthcare and it should be treated as such.

To be clear: that doesn't mean that I don't think that abortion should be regulated, just like other forms of health care. Much like treatment for helping women through menopause or managing the symptoms of endometriosis, there should be protocols and best practice in place, with women and their healthcare professionals working out what's best for them.

‘I can't think of a single circumstance in which it is in anyone's best interest to imprison a woman'

People are working to make this change. Labour MP Diana Johnson has put forward an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill to stop women seeking to end their own pregnancies from being impacted by the Offences Against the Person Act and the Infant Life (Preservation) Act – the laws via which women are being prosecuted. Such a change would ensure that no more women face prosecution or prison for ending their own pregnancy.

As well as protecting women from such punitive injustice, it would also help to remove some of the stigma and shame around abortion. The reality is, one in three women will undergo a termination at some point. It means that these messages of social disapproval are supremely unhelpful for many, many women.

If you're keen to see an end to the laws which are used to prosecute women, then I'd urge you to join our campaign for the decriminalisation of abortion at Doctors for Choice UK. Spread our messages on social media; talk about the issue with your friends. Contact your MP and ask them to support Diana Johnson's amendment to the current law.

The majority of people in this country are pro choice and I firmly believe that most people do not want to see women prosecuted for trying to end a pregnancy.

Now, let's get the law in step with public opinion.


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