It's 2016 and a Woman in the UK Was Just Convicted for Self-Inducing an Abortion

A young woman in Northern Ireland has been sentenced by a judge for using drugs bought online to induce a miscarriage. We asked a lawyer how this could happen in a country where abortion is ostensibly legal.

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Apr 5 2016, 2:00pm

Photo by Mauro Grigollo via Stocksy

Most women in the UK sleep easy at night, believing that they live in a country where poisonous anti-abortion rhetoric has been consigned to the history books and our political system believes that women should be protected—not punished—when it comes to having an abortion. On Monday, that was proven wrong.

A Northern Irish woman has been sentenced for the crime of having an abortion after buying pills over the internet to induce a miscarriage, reports the Belfast Telegraph. The 21 year old, who cannot be named for legal reasons, pleaded guilty to procuring her own abortion by using a poison, and of supplying a poison with intent to procure a miscarriage. She was given a three-month jail term suspended for two years.

Crown prosecutor Kate McKay said that the woman had just moved into a house in May 2014 when she told her new housemates that she was pregnant and was trying to raise money to travel from Belfast to England for a termination. After falling short of the money required, she contacted an abortion clinic in England for advice and was told that she could acquire two drugs—mifepristone and misoprostol—off the internet to induce a miscarriage. She was 19.

She miscarried on July 12, 2014. Her housemates discovered bloodstained items and a fetus inside a black bag in a household bin. McKay said the housemates were "taken aback by the seemingly blasé attitude" of the young woman and reported her to the Police Service of Northern Ireland about a week later.

Defense attorney Paul Bacon said that his client was living in Belfast with people that she barely knew. The teenager felt "isolated and trapped ... with no-one to turn to" and resorted to "desperate measures." He told the court that the 21 year old had since had a child with her partner and was now "trying to put her life back together again." He also said that she felt "victimized" by the system.

Read more: College Students Are Demanding Abortion Access on Campus

There was widespread anger last night that a woman in the UK has been punished by the courts for having an abortion. In the Independent, Siobhan Fenton wrote:

Just last week when Donald Trump suggested that women should be "punished" for breaking abortion laws, he caused outrage around the world. In the UK, his comments were roundly condemned by politicians and commentators. How easily the British forget that this happens within the UK, out of sight and out of mind in Northern Ireland.

"The sentence in this case is very interesting," Sally Sheldon, a professor of law and medical ethics at Kent Law School, told Broadly. "The judge has really given the lowest sentence that was available to him. Section 58 of the Offenses Against the Person Act, which the young woman has been charged with, carries the maximum sentence of life imprisonment. That's the most onerous sentence anywhere in Europe right now. The reason is we're operating under an archaic piece of legislation is that it was passed under the reign of Queen Victoria and hasn't been changed since. It's just way out of line with contemporary moral views."

Belfast Town Hall. Photo by Micky Wiswedel via Stocksy

Despite being part of the UK, Northern Ireland operates under vastly different abortion legislation. "Abortion is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, so it's up to Stormont [the Northern Ireland Assembly] to introduce new legislation. The 1967 Abortion Act which liberalized access to abortion in England, Wales, and Scotland has never been extended to Northern Ireland. The reasons for that are political and obviously to do with religious sensibilities in that province."

In a 2011 census, 40.7 percent of people described themselves as Catholic, while 19 percent identify as Protestant and another 13.7 percent as Church of Ireland. That makes it the most Christian place in the UK.

"You need to remember that Northern Irish MPs are very strongly anti-abortion," Sheldon added, "so those who sit in Westminster tend to be absolutely unified in rejecting an extension of the Abortion Act in Northern Ireland—it's one of the only issues they vote in the same direction on."

Opinion polls suggest that the Northern Irish public would welcome some liberalization of abortion law. An Amnesty International survey carried out in February found that 69 percent of people thought the law should allow abortion in cases of rape and incest, while 60 percent supported abortion if the fetus had a fatal abnormality.

Sheldon pointed to a lack of incentive for politicians to take on the fraught issue of abortion in Northern Ireland. "Abortion more generally is not seen as a vote winner for parliamentarians, it's not something they like to deal with."

Read more: Banning Abortion Doesn't Actually Reduce Abortion Rates at All

As the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) points out, this is not the first time that a woman in the UK has been sentenced for buying drugs off the internet to induce an abortion. "While the situation in Northern Ireland is desperate, and this young woman was undoubtedly pushed into breaking the law because she couldn't access abortion at home, any woman doing this in England, Wales or Scotland would be criminalized in exactly the same way," a spokesperson explained.

While the Abortion Act made abortion available to women in these regions, it did so under strict conditions of control that do not cover at-home abortions. Any woman who buys abortion drugs online in the UK are still deemed to be carrying out a criminal act. In 2013, a woman from North Yorkshire, England, was sentenced to eight years in prison after falling foul of the law. "Abortion legislation in the UK," concludes BPAS, "is not fit for the twenty-first century."

But there are slow, encouraging signs of change. In November, the High Court in Belfast ruled that existing legislation on abortion contravenes human rights law. "I think that's very significant for a domestic court to say that," Sheldon said. "You've also got various human rights bodies that have condemned the law as breaching human rights. I think there is widespread recognition that the law needs to be changed. The problem is finding the political will to act on that."