Yes. I do mean the UK.
Imagine the pain of giving birth to a stillborn baby and cradling them in your arms one last time with tears rolling down your eyes before promptly being handcuffed to your bed and accused of murder.
This is the nightmarish scenario that some women in England are facing right now as they come up against a grey area which still crimninalises suspected illegal abortions.
In the wake of the shocking decision to overturn Roe and Wade in America, many of us liberals in England smugly scoffed at the folly of our American counterparts.
But what you may not have realised is that abortions in the UK are still not technically decriminalised.
Facing Life in Prison
As the law currently stands, you cannot terminate a pregnancy after 24 weeks. Furthermore, two different doctors need to sign off on your abortion before it can occur.
They must agree that having the baby would pose a greater risk to the physical or mental health of the woman or child than a termination. If a woman is deemed to have had an abortion beyond the legal cut off point, then she can be prosecuted.
This is because abortions are still deemed a criminal act in England, Scotland and Wales under the 1967 Abortion Act. If any medical professional delivers an abortion outside the terms of the act, they too risk prosecution.
Moreover, legislation passed in 1861 means any woman who ends a pregnancy without getting legal permission from two doctors, can potentially face life imprisonment.
Unfortunately, for some women in the UK, this is not just one of those arcane laws that are technically on the books but never enforced.
There are women in the UK right now who are currently being tried for murder due to being suspected of having an illegal abortion. They face some of the harshest jail sentences in the United Kingdom.
Why You Don’t Need an Abortion to Be Prosecuted
Imagine being held in a tiny, cramped police cell after tragically losing your baby merely because someone thought you had an abortion. Or imagine that the police stubbornly continued to punish you for losing your child even if you were not over the legal limit.
This sounds like the kind of tragedy that could only happen in the American deep south. At least in the UK, we’re immune from such a travesty of justice.
Except the case I’m referring to is still ongoing — in England.
In an interview with the Independent, Dr Lord, the co-chair of the British Society of Abortion Care Providers described the terrifying ordeal of one woman that lost her baby through stillbirth but was prosecuted for having an illegal abortion merely because she had previously enquired about it.
Dr Lord said: “She was shocked to give birth due to not knowing how far along pregnant she was. She was admitted to hospital.
“Because healthcare colleagues were suspicious, and knew she had been in touch with us, an abortion provider, as she told them, they suspected her of having an illegal abortion and called the police. But she wasn’t over the limit for a legal abortion.
“The police arrested her in hospital. She stayed the night in hospital and then was discharged the following morning straight into police custody. It took them 36 hours to process her.”
It isn’t even just women that actually went through with an abortion. Anyone who loses their baby can potentially be investigated if healthcare providers merely think that you might have had one.
For example, if you are not deemed to be expressing enough grief after losing a baby, or you have taken any herbal supplements that are thought to have harmed your baby, then you may very well find yourself in hot water.
Why Abortion is Not ‘Settled’
According to Dominic Raab, abortion in the UK is ‘settled’.
His statement came after protesters and MPs called upon the government to enshrine the right to abortion in the forthcoming British Bill of Rights.
In response to a cross-party amendment to enshrine the right in the bill, Raab claimed that the position was “settled in UK law in relation to abortion, it’s decided by members across this house. It’s a conscience issue, I don’t think there’s a strong case for change.”
He added: “What I would not want to do, is find ourselves, with the greatest respect, in the US position where this is being relitigated through the courts rather than settled as it is now settled.”
Ironically, only women in Northern Ireland have the guaranteed right to an abortion, following an amendment backed by MPs in 2019 to the NI executive formation bill.
I say ironically, because Northern Ireland has always had some of the strictest laws in the UK when it comes to abortion. Prior to 2019, women in Northern Ireland had to travel to England if they wanted a termination.
But if Dominic Raab is right and there is no need to enshrine the right to abortion in UK law, then why are some women still facing prison sentences for having a termination? More importantly, why are some of these women facing prison sentences even if they are not outside the legal limits?
Punished For Stillbirths
Only last year, one 15 year old girl (who I cannot name due to confidentiality reasons) was subjected to a year long investigation merely for having a miscarriage. Her text messages and search history were also analysed as part of the investigation. Police only dropped the case after a coroner concluded that the baby died of natural causes.
The teenager was investigated under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which says it is unlawful to procure a miscarriage using “poison”, “an instrument” or “other means whatsoever.” Anyone assisting women in these circumstances can also be prosecuted.
Analysis of crime logs and Home Office data, showed that in recent years, police have pursued dozens of cases of abortion.
Your Online Searches Can Incriminate You
When pursuing a case against you, there are certain things police officers will do to build a case against you. For example, they will confiscate your phone for weeks or even months to analyse your messages and search history. Deleting that data does not mean it can’t be accessed. Police may also take away your computer, or approach your internet service provider (ISP) for information on your search history.
If you use any period tracking or pregnancy apps, these will also be reviewed to see whether you have had any unexplained gaps in your menstruation cycle that could indicate a possible pregnancy.
Any apps that track your health and location can also be forensically analysed. Police may also look at your purchase history to see whether you have brought any pills, herbal supplements or anything else that could be deemed to have caused either an abortion or a miscarriage.
Why Anti-Abortion Laws Should Worry Us All
Campaigners have argued that the risk of falling foul of abortion laws is also deterring women who may be experiencing issues with a pregnancy from getting help due to fears of being unfairly penalized.
Labour MP Stella Creasy said action was needed to enshrine access to abortion in law as a human right.
She added: “People will be shocked to find out that women are being investigated for having a miscarriage or seeking an abortion in England and Wales. This is not a mark of a civilised society.”
While it is relatively easy for women to obtain an abortion in the UK, the prosecution of women who have already experienced the worst type of trauma shows that we should never let our guards down.
Even if you are staunchly pro-life and are disgusted with the very idea of abortions, you can still potentially find yourself on the wrong end of the law should you ever be unfortunate enough to have a miscarriage. While this may be relatively rare at the moment, the mere possibility should be concerning to anyone interested in justice.
While the dark cloud of Roe vs Rade continues to hang over America, the battle for reproductive rights is not over in the UK either.
Unless we continue to advocate for women’s rights in the UK, the battle to decriminalise abortion could very easily turn into an all-out war against women right here on our home soil.