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Why You Can Still Get Sent to Jail for Having an Abortion in the UK

You might think that abortion is completely legal in the country, but you'd be wrong—under a horrifyingly archaic law, multiple women have been sent to jail for self-induced terminations.

Frankie Mullin

Frankie Mullin

Photo by Shikhar Bhattarai via Stocksy

"Every woman, being with child, who, with intent to procure her own miscarriage, shall unlawfully administer to herself any poison or other noxious thing [...] shall be liable to be kept in penal servitude for life."

So reads section 58 of the 1861 Offences against the Person Act, a piece of Victorian legislation that, contrary to popular belief, still holds sway in England, Wales, Northern Ireland—every country in the UK bar Scotland, which has its own Common Law version—and the Republic of Ireland.

Horror stories come thick and fast from both the North and the Republic of Ireland, where abortion is illegal even in cases of rape, severe fetal impairment or risk to the pregnant woman's health. However campaigners warn that the legal framework for these injustices is in place across the UK.

Prosecutions have already taken place in England. Last year, 24-year-old Natalie Towers from Durham, already a mother of one, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years for using abortion pills bought online. She collapsed in court and was taken, sobbing, straight to prison. In 2013, Sarah Louise Catt, from North Yorkshire was jailed for eight years for a similar crime. In 2010, Maisha Mohamed, from Manchester, was given a 12-month suspended sentence for the same.

In all the English cases, the baby was over the 24-week threshold for carrying out a legal abortion. However, activists question the appropriateness of sending these women to jail at all.

Read More: Abortion Clinics Are Burning, But No One Seems to Care

"What's happening in Northern Ireland is outrageous but people need to be aware that it can happen in the rest of the UK," says Alisa Berry Ryan of Abortion Rights UK. "There's no reason abortion should come under criminal law at all.

"There are lots of reasons someone might take reproductive rights into their own hands. Not everyone is able to jump over all the barriers of access."

When it comes to meting out punishments for self-induced abortion, the UK carries the most draconian abortion legislation of anywhere in Europe. Even in countries such as Poland, where abortion is highly restricted, the likes of Natalie Towers would not have been jailed.

In a new campaign, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), along with organizations from across the UK, including the Fawcett Society, Women's Aid and Maternity Action are calling for abortion to be decriminalized.

Protesters on a pro-choice march in Ireland. Photo courtesy of the Irish Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC)

In particular, they say that rise in accessibility of medical abortion pills, mifepristone and misoprostol—available from pioneering online medical abortion service, Women on Web, and, worrying, from less reliable sources—has rendered the current law not just obsolete but dangerous.

In 2014, just over half of all terminations in England and Wales were carried out medically, with abortion pills. It's been proven safe, with a success rate of 95 to 98 percent. Corresponding with the boom in NHS-delivered medical abortions, the underground sale of pills has skyrocketed.

It's hard to gauge how many women are buying pills online, but it's clear there is a market even in countries in which abortion is legal. Last year, the UK's Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency seized £15.8 million worth of illegal medication, among which was misoprostol.

Our bodies remain governed by a piece of Victorian legislation passed by an all-male parliament before women could even vote.

"Although abortion is relatively accessible in England, Wales and Scotland, we know that women are still buying abortion medication online for a number of reasons," says Katherine O'Brien of BPAS.

"Some will be young women who are too frightened to tell their parents they are pregnant. There will also be women who are unable to access abortion care for free on the NHS because of their asylum status. And there will also be women who are experiencing domestic violence and are scared their partner will find out if they go to a clinic or to talk to their doctor."

O'Brien warns that, should these women choose to buy medication online, they will be breaking the law and could face jail.

"The increasing availability of abortion medication online means that more women may be putting themselves at risk of prosecution and a potential sentence of life imprisonment."

A website claiming to sell abortion pills online, including mifepristone and misoprostol. Screenshot via abortionpillrx.com

It may come as a shock that the 1967 Abortion Act (in place in England, Wales, and Scotland, but not Northern Ireland) didn't repeal the 19th century offences laid out in the Offences Against the Person Act. It simply provided exceptions: two doctors must decide that a child-bearer's mental or physical health would suffer if forced to continue a pregnancy; the abortion must be performed by a doctor; and the procedure must be carried out on licensed premises.

"These restrictions made a certain amount of sense in 1967," says Sally Sheldon, Professor of Law at the University of Kent. "They were meant to take abortion out of back streets and make sure terminations were performed safely. In 1967 we were talking about surgical terminations; a technically demanding, relatively risky operation. Fast-forward to 2016 and those requirements make no sense whatsoever."

Meanwhile, those who step outside these restrictions are committing offences against breathtakingly archaic laws.

Section 60 of the Offences Against The Person Act deals with "concealment of birth." This, "nasty pernicious bit of legislation," Sheldon tells me, has it origins in an even older statute, the 1624 Act to Prevent the Destroying and Murdering of Bastard Children.

"This offence was only committable by unmarried women," Sheldon says. "It was all about policing sexual morality."

The most extreme interpretation of these archaic laws is felt in Ireland and Northern Ireland, where taking pills to induce miscarriage is a jailable offence. Last year, a Northern Irish woman was prosecuted for obtaining abortion medication for her daughter. It wasn't the only such case, but it was one which triggered a furious response.

Home abortion is a terrifying prospect under criminalization. Orla, a 31-year-old from the Republic of Ireland, who asked Broadly to change her name, obtained pills from Women on Web, sent via her friend in the North to avoid customs.

"The process was far more painful than I was expecting," she says. "I knew it was safe, but to not have access to any kind of medical support—to not be able to ring your GP and ask if all this pain and bleeding is normal—is frightening. At the time [five years ago], I would have been liable for life in prison. Now, it's 'only' 14 years."

Read More: My Life as an Abortion Provider in an Age of Terror

With stories like these, attention is quite rightly focused on abortion law in Ireland, but reform is needed across the UK.

Fully decriminalizing abortion is important at an ideological level. "Our bodies remain governed by a piece of Victorian legislation passed by an all-male parliament before women could even vote," says O'Brien.

However it's vital in a very real way for the women who've fallen foul of overzealous interpretations of the law. In England, Towers is still in jail. In Ireland, women are dead.

"My biggest fear is that the law will result in more women dying for want of treatment, like Savita Halappanavar," says Stephanie Lord, spokesperson for Choice Ireland. Halappanavar died in a Galwayhospital after being denied an abortion for her miscarrying fetus. "Or that we'll have more forced C-sections like the 2014 case of a suicidal refugee, pregnant as a result of rape, who was denied an abortion. That absolutely must not be allowed happen again."