The recent imprisonment of a woman in the UK for taking abortion pills during the late stages of her pregnancy has sparked shock and controversy. Many people are still unaware that abortion is illegal in England and Wales unless authorized by two doctors. Using abortion medication from unofficial sources or using legally obtained medication in a way other than directed can lead to life imprisonment under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. The law criminalized abortion in the 1800s to protect women from the dangers of backstreet abortions, which were surgical procedures without antibiotics or effective treatments for complications like uncontrollable bleeding. Today, legal abortion is a safe option, much safer than continuing a pregnancy to full-term. So, why is the law being used to imprison women? Reading through the sentencing hearing in this case and others, it appears that the law is being used to protect the fetus. The judge in this particular case emphasized the late stage of the woman’s pregnancy as an aggravating factor, referring to the woman’s “stillborn” daughter. However, it’s important to note that the offense of procuring a miscarriage, as outlined in the Offences Against the Person Act, does not specify the gestational stage of the pregnancy or require the death of the fetus. No woman has been prosecuted for illegally ending her pregnancy at an early stage. This suggests that the law is focused on protecting fetuses that could potentially survive if born alive, rather than preventing abortion altogether. The shocking nature of this particular case may stem from the fact that the woman was in the late stages of her pregnancy when she took abortion medication. Limited details of her experience indicate that she, like many other women in similar situations, acted out of extreme vulnerability and crisis. It’s important to understand that women do not seek late-term abortions by choice; they are motivated by desperation and are often emotionally attached to their unborn child. These are not simply unwanted pregnancies resulting in delayed abortions. Women who self-abort late in gestation do not necessarily want the fetus to die; they believe that bringing a child into the world would be impossible due to factors like fear of violence or abuse. Some argue that a late-term fetus should be legally protected, similar to a newborn baby. However, applying criminal law in this way poses significant risks to women and the unborn. In the United States, many states explicitly protect the unborn child, leading to the arrest, detention, and imprisonment of women following miscarriages and stillbirths. Women’s right to refuse medical care during pregnancy is compromised, and behavior that would otherwise be legal becomes illegal. These laws disproportionately affect women of color and those of lower socioeconomic status. Furthermore, protecting fetuses in the law directly threatens reproductive rights and has led to worse health outcomes and even death for both fetuses and pregnant women. It’s essential to acknowledge that the question of whether the criminal law should protect fetal life is complex, and it should be deliberated by parliament. The current interpretation by the courts and the Crown Prosecution Service, which files charges against women, extends the statute beyond the original intentions of parliament. It’s time for parliament to conduct a comprehensive and compassionate review of this area of criminal law. [Credit: Emituu/Shutterstock]
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Shambhu Kumar is a science communicator, making complex scientific topics accessible to all. His articles explore breakthroughs in various scientific disciplines, from space exploration to cutting-edge research.