A young woman due to face trial for having an illegal abortion has had her case dropped after a judge said he was “flabbergasted” it was pursued in the first place.
The 25-year-old, who had an emergency caesarean section last year at 31 weeks, was reported to the police when a clinician found two pills in her body believed to be abortion medication. Her baby was delivered at 4lb 4oz and is now a toddler.
She was later charged with “administering poison with intent to procure a miscarriage” under a law which dates back to 1861. The maximum sentence is life in prison. Last week prosecutors told Oxford crown court that “it is not in the public interest for this case to proceed”. The judge had said that they had been “misconceived” in their pursuit of the case and that the trial would have been a waste of court time.
Jonathan Lord, a spokesman for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said: “We are delighted that this case has been dropped. No woman should face the cruelty and distress of an investigation or prosecution for ending a pregnancy or for experiencing pregnancy loss.”
Abortion is only partially decriminalised in England and Wales: those who try to terminate a pregnancy in an unlicensed way are committing a crime.
Earlier this year The Sunday Times uncovered a number of cases in which women had been arrested, charged and in one instance imprisoned for having an abortion, including one woman who obtained the pills from an authorised provider. Campaigners and medical professionals say this has a “chilling” effect on women’s reproductive freedoms and are urging the director of public prosecutions, Max Hill KC, to issue guidance against similar prosecutions, and for parliament to decriminalise abortion entirely.
The 25-year-old woman, whom the Sunday Times is not naming, was charged with unlawfully administering Misoprostol, a labour-inducing medication often used for abortions. She pleaded not guilty.
The Abortion Act 1967 decriminalised abortion within 23 weeks and six days of gestation providing certain conditions are met, such as that continuing with the pregnancy would involve risk to the physical or mental health of the woman or her existing children. There is no time limit for abortions if there is evidence of a fatal foetal abnormality or a significant risk to the mother’s life. Legislation in Northern Ireland is similar, but abortion in the first 12 weeks is permitted for any reason.
The woman said she had been prescribed Misoprostol by a doctor in Portugal, her home country, rather than being authorised by two British clinicians, and said she took them accidentally, thinking they were anti-thrush medication. She was rushed to surgery for an emergency c-section in January last year.
Recorder John Hardy KC said he was “flabbergasted” that she was being prosecuted. He described the case as “sad and tragic” and the intended trial as a “waste of court time [that] exacerbates the absence of any public interest I can detect in pursuing this prosecution”.
“The judge was absolutely right to express outrage,” said Harriet Wistrich, founder of the Centre for Women’s Justice. “To expend resources on seeking to criminalise a woman caught out by archaic laws shows a cruel and disturbing approach to justice, particularly at a time when our criminal justice system is on the verge of collapse.”
The deputy chief crown prosecutor, Chris Derrick, said that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) had decided it was not in the public interest to continue with the prosecution, “in light of new information received after the defendant was charged”, including information about the present guardian and health of the child, and “information about any applicable previous medical procedures undertaken by the defendant whilst overseas”.
Derrick continued: “Whilst the evidence in this case met, and continues to meet, our legal test for a prosecution, we concluded it would not be in the public interest to prosecute the defendant because of the impact this could have on the child in this case.”
Clare Murphy, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said it was the right decision taken at the wrong time. “It’s frankly ludicrous that it has taken this long for the CPS to recognise it.”
She continued: “The law needs to be overhauled so that no more women in these desperate circumstances are ever threatened with prison again.
According to a Sunday Times analysis of Home Office data, 11 people were reported to police last year in England and Wales accused of illegally procuring an abortion. This was up from seven in 2020, eight the year before, and just two in 2018.
“Abortion is healthcare, yet no other healthcare procedure begins its conditions of access in the criminal law,” said the Labour MP Stella Creasy.
Next year another woman will appear in an English court, charged under the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929, which states that any person who destroys the life of a child capable of being born alive with intent can be subjected to conviction and can face life in prison.
The woman obtained pills during lockdown from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service under legislation which allowed women up to ten weeks pregnant to receive abortion pills in the post to take at home after a remote consultation. She delivered a 28-week foetus and was reported to the police.
“[The prosecution] remains under constant and careful review,” a CPS spokesman said, “as is the case for all prosecutions.”
Charlotte Proudman, a barrister, is planning on bringing a case against the government under human rights law, arguing that the present legislation is in breach of women’s human rights.
“Abortion shouldn’t be regulated by the CPS,” said Proudman. “There should be a blanket policy that no women should be criminalised for any abortion-related activity. The law needs to be changed.”