Landmark amendment seeks to end jail time for women who end their own pregnancies

Posted 29 November 2023

Date: 29 Nov 2023

Type: FSRH Press Releases and Statements

Dame Diana Johnson has tonight put forward an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill to remove women from the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and the Infant Life Preservation Act 1929 in relation to their own pregnancies.

  • The amendment would ensure that no woman faces prosecution or jail time for ending her pregnancy
  • Existing abortion laws and regulation remain intact, including the 24 week time limit, the requirement for two doctors’ signatures, and the grounds for abortion provision
  • In the past year in England, five women have appeared in court charged with ending or attempting to end their own pregnancy outside abortion law. This is up from four in total over the previous 55 years
  • The amendment has the support of cross-party MPs, as well as leading medical bodies and abortion providers

Dame Diana Johnson, Member for Kingston Upon Hull North, said:

“Women who are ending their pregnancies outside of the existing law are often immensely vulnerable and doing so under desperate circumstances. It is in nobody’s best interests to threaten these women with outdated Victorian criminal laws that are now 161 years old. My amendment is designed to assert the fundamental principle that no woman should ever face going to jail for ending her pregnancy. In the 21st Century, abortion should be most effectively regulated as a healthcare matter.”

Dr Janet Barter, President of the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare, said:

“Abortion care is an essential part of healthcare. It is highly regulated and should be subject solely to appropriate professional standards, in line with any other areas of healthcare.

We fully support the removal of criminal sanctions associated with abortion, which will help to remove stigma and fear and reiterate to women that they have the right to control their own sexual and reproductive health choices.”

Clare Murphy, Chief Executive at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said:

“We are seeing an alarming increase in police investigations and prosecutions of women for ending their pregnancies. For every woman who ends up in court, many others are subjected to prolonged police investigations. Now, more than ever, we owe it to women to put an end to the threat of distressing police investigations, prosecution, and jail time for ending their pregnancies.”

Louise McCudden, UK Head of External Affairs at MSI Reproductive Choices, said:

“Our Victorian abortion laws are in urgent need of reform. It can never be in the public interest for anyone to face prosecution for ending their own pregnancy.

“We welcome action from Parliament on this. We have seen growing numbers of women face investigation following unexplained pregnancy losses, often while in extremely difficult circumstances. They should be treated with compassion and given the support they need, not threatened with jail.”

Dr Ranee Thakar, President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said:

“Abortion care is an essential part of sexual and reproductive healthcare and the decision to have an abortion should be entirely up to the individual, without fear of prosecution.

Abortion, like any other healthcare procedure, should be subject to regulatory and professional standards, in line with other medical procedures, rather than criminal sanctions.

It is our belief that prosecuting a woman for ending their pregnancy will never be in the public interest.”

Jemima Olchawski, Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society, said:

“It's beyond belief that our legal system allows women to be prosecuted or imprisoned for ending their pregnancy. The law that allows this to happen is so old it predates women’s suffrage and it’s in no way fit for purpose in modern-day Britain. It wasn’t written by us, and it doesn’t work for us. We need the system to be changed to better protect all women and we stand with Dame Johnson and welcome her amendment.”

ENDS

For further information, please contact Georgina O’Reilly, BPAS Associate Director of Campaigns and Communications (maternity cover), on georgina.oreilly@bpas.org or 07384 891886.

Note to editors:

The women affected

Women who seek to end their pregnancies outside the current law are doing so because they’re desperate. We know that many of these women are mothers already, and that in several cases their attempt to end the pregnancy was unsuccessful. Examples include:

  • A 15-year-old girl investigated by police after a stillbirth at 28 weeks, accused of illegal abortion, her phone and laptop confiscated during her GCSE exams, and endured a year-long investigation – which concluded only when the coroner found that the pregnancy had ended as a result of natural causes;
  • A woman with three children, including one with special needs, who ended her pregnancy outside the law in the early weeks of the pandemic, who received a 28-month custodial sentence in June 2023 (reduced to 14 months on appeal);
  • A woman arrested in hospital in 2021 and kept in a police cell for 36 hours after a stillbirth at 24 weeks; and

The impact on abortion laws and provision

The amendment would have no impact on the provision of abortion care, or the laws that govern doctors, nurses and midwives. Specifically:

  • There would be no change to the legal time limit, which would remain at 24 weeks;
  • There would be no change to the telemedicine law passed recently by Parliament;
  • Abortions would still require two doctors’ signatures to be legally provided;
  • Women would still have to meet one of the grounds laid out in the Abortion Act 1967;
  • Non-consensual abortion would remain a crime at any gestation; and
  • Anybody, including a medical professional, who assisted a woman in obtaining an abortion outside the law would be liable for prosecution.