Calls for Modernizing Outdated 1861 Abortion Law Resulted in Incarceration of a Mother

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Parliament must contemplate the revamping of the ‘out-of-date’ law employed to imprison a mother-of-three who acquired abortion tablets unlawfully to terminate her pregnancy amidst the lockdown, expressed a senior Tory.

Caroline Nokes, the chairwoman of the Commons Women and Equalities Committee, aligned with women’s rights groups in urging for the reform of the 1861 legislation utilized to indict Carla Foster.

A 28-month extended sentence was imposed on the 44-year-old woman who confessed to unlawfully acquiring abortion tablets to terminate her pregnancy when she was between 32 and 34 weeks pregnant.

Instances such as this, while tragic and thankfully uncommon, highlight the fact that we depend on legislation that is significantly outdated. This strongly argues for Parliament to thoroughly address this matter.

Caroline Nokes commented on the situation.

Typically, abortions are legally permissible until the 24th week of pregnancy and are performed in clinics after the 10th week.

According to Stoke-on-Trent Crown Court, Foster received the drugs from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) after providing false information about the stage of her pregnancy during the pandemic lockdown in 2020.

The prosecution revealed that Foster conducted several internet searches between February and May 2020, which included phrases like “how to hide a pregnancy bump,” “how to have an abortion without going to the doctor,” and “how to lose a baby at six months.”

Initially, Foster faced charges of child destruction and pleaded not guilty.

Subsequently, she changed her plea to guilty for an alternative charge under section 58 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which pertains to administering drugs or using instruments to procure an abortion. The prosecution accepted this plea.

The judgment has sparked a significant backlash.

Ms Nokes told BBC Radio 4’s World Tonight programme: “This is not something that has been debated in any great detail for many years now.

“And cases like this, although tragic and fortunately very rare, do throw into stark relief that we are reliant on legislation that is very, very out of date.”

“I think that makes a case for Parliament to start looking at this issue in detail.”

Harriet Wistrich, the director of the Centre for Women’s Justice, raised concerns about whether the prosecution served the public interest.

“What possible purpose is served in criminalising and imprisoning this woman, when at most she needs better access to healthcare and other support?” she said.

“She is clearly already traumatised by the experience and now her children will be left without their mother for over a year.”

“When most forms of violence against women and girls go unpunished this sentence confirms our very worst fears about contemporary attitudes to women’s basic human rights and an utterly misdirected criminal justice system.”

Chiara Capraro, the Women’s Human Rights Programme Director at Amnesty International UK, expressed her shock and deep concern over the decision to prosecute, describing it as “shocking and quite frankly terrifying.”

“This is a tremendously sad story and underscores the desperate need for legal reform in relation to reproductive health,” she said.

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. That is, however, a matter for Parliament and not for the courts.

In alignment with this perspective, BPAS Chief Executive Clare Murphy firmly asserted, “No woman can ever go through this again.” She called upon MPs to take action and protect women in desperate circumstances, ensuring they are never threatened with imprisonment.

“Vulnerable women in the most incredibly difficult of circumstances deserve more from our legal system,” she said.

The Crown Prosecution Service acknowledged that the case was both “complex and traumatic.” They further stated that their responsibility is to ensure that laws are “properly considered and applied when making difficult charging decisions.”

During the court proceedings, it was revealed that Foster, who already had three sons, did not seek medical assistance for her pregnancy due to feeling embarrassed and uncertain about the stage of her pregnancy.

In May 2020, Foster consulted with a nurse practitioner from BPAS and subsequently received abortion pills by mail. Based on her responses, it was determined that she was only approximately seven weeks pregnant.

A post-mortem examination later determined that the child was between 32 and 34 weeks’ gestation at the time of birth.

The cause of death for the child was documented as stillbirth, attributed to the maternal use of abortion drugs.

As part of her sentencing, Foster will spend 14 months in custody and the remaining duration on licence following her release.

Sentencing judge Mr Justice Pepperall said: “This case concerns one woman’s tragic and unlawful decision to obtain a very late abortion.

“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. That is, however, a matter for Parliament and not for the courts.”

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