Two British women face life in prison for having abortions under obscure 160-year Victorian law

Two women in the UK are facing prison for having an abortion, including one who obtained the pills required from an authorised provider. 

A 25-year-old unnamed woman is accused of having ‘unlawfully administered to herself a poison or other noxious thing, namely Misoprostol’ with the intention of inducing a miscarriage. 

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. 

She allegedly took the drug, which is one of two pills routinely prescribed by doctors to abort a pregnancy, in January last year

She allegedly took the drug, which is one of two pills routinely prescribed by doctors to abort a pregnancy, in January last year

What crimes are the women accused of?  

Offences Against the Person Act 1861 

The 25-year-old woman is accused of an offence which falls under the 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 

The second woman is charged with child destruction under the Infant Life (Preservation) Act which dates back to 1929. 

The 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. 

The woman pleaded not guilty at Oxford Crown Court to administering poison with intent to procure a miscarriage. She was told via interpreter that she will stand trial in February next year. 

It comes as 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. 

The at-home provisions became permanent in March after MPs voted to support an amendment to the Health and Care Bill. 

After the woman took the pills, she delivered a 28-week foetus and was reported to the police. 

Her case is set to be sent to Stoke Crown Court. If convicted, she also faces a maximum life in prison sentence. 

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. 

Senior doctors have said continued prosecutions may deter women experiencing miscarriages and incomplete abortions from seeking treatment when needed. 

Medics, lawyers and charity workers have 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.  

It comes as similar freedoms are curtailed in the US, where the Supreme Court ruling which gave women a right to seek a termination, Roe V Wade, was recently overturned. 

In a Tweet shared online, BPAS shared their words to Hill 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.’ 

The woman, a mother to a toddler, pleaded not guilty at Oxford Crown Court to administering poison with intent to procure a miscarriage

The woman, a mother to a toddler, pleaded not guilty at Oxford Crown Court to administering poison with intent to procure a miscarriage

The case of a second woman  is set to be sent to Stoke Crown Court. If convicted, she also faces a maximum life in prison sentence.

The case of a second woman  is set to be sent to Stoke Crown Court. If convicted, she also faces a maximum life in prison sentence.

In a tweet, they wrote: ‘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.’ 

The charity has sent a letter to the Crown Prosecution Service, who are thought to be considering the issues raised as a matter of urgency. 

Jonathan Lord, Medical Director of MSI Reproductive Choices UK, has claimed that some women have found themselves being investigated after a natural miscarriage or stillbirth because they previously considered terminating their pregnancy.

It comes as similar freedoms are curtailed in the US, where the Supreme Court ruling which gave women a right to seek a termination was overturned

It comes as similar freedoms are curtailed in the US, where the Supreme Court ruling which gave women a right to seek a termination was overturned 

Charlotte Proudman, one of the barristers who has signed the letter, said she is considering bring a case against the government under human rights laws.  

MPs have argued for the a change to be made to the law so that abortion is regulated as a health procedure. 

Labour MP Diana Johnson said: ‘I think the British public do not want to see women and doctors criminalised under a Victorian law when medicine and public opinion have moved on so much.’

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