Women’s rights groups call for reform of ‘outdated and illiberal’ abortion laws

Women’s rights groups have called for urgent reform of “outdated and illiberal” abortion laws after judges reduced the sentence of a woman jailed for illegally obtaining abortion tablets to end her pregnancy.

Carla Foster is set to be released from prison after her sentence was reduced at the Court of Appeal in London on Tuesday.

The 45-year-old was handed a 28-month extended sentence last month after she admitted illegally procuring her own abortion when she was between 32 and 34 weeks pregnant.

She was initially charged with child destruction and pleaded not guilty but later pleaded guilty to an alternative charge of section 58 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, administering drugs or using instruments to procure abortion.

Reacting to Tuesday’s ruling, Jemima Olchawski, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, a gender equality and women’s rights charity, claimed it is “never in the public interest to prosecute a case like this one”.

She said: “We are enormously relieved to hear that Carla Foster will leave custody, and applaud Dame Victoria’s statement at the Court of Appeal that this case calls for compassion, not punishment.

“We are grateful to our partners at BPAS (British Pregnancy Advisory Service) for their tireless campaigning on this issue and to the Fawcett members who joined us to rally against this injustice.

“However, the question remains why a woman seeking healthcare was ever criminalised in the first place.

“It was never, and is never, in the public interest to prosecute a case like this one.

“The law that allowed this to happen is so old it predates women’s suffrage – it is in no way fit for purpose in modern-day Britain. It wasn’t written by us, and it doesn’t work for us.

“This story is not only about this one woman, it’s about a system that is truly broken.

“We must now turn our attention to the system that allowed this to happen and ensure no woman is ever treated this way again.”

Claire Murphy, chief executive of BPAS, a UK abortion care service charity, echoed the calls for “compassion” and not “punishment”.

She told Sky News on Tuesday: “We were absolutely really delighted and relieved to see Carla released today, absolutely devastated by the initial ruling that she needed to go to prison.

“This has been a very complex case that has raised a huge degree of emotion but I think the verdict today and really this line that what we need in these circumstances is compassion and not punishment is absolutely the way we need to go.

“These are very rare and very complex cases but we really need to ask ourselves do we really want any women going through this again, the threat of prosecution and prison for ending a pregnancy?

“Is the criminal law ever the right response to these circumstances?”

At Foster’s sentencing, the court heard she was sent the drugs by BPAS after she called them during lockdown in 2020 and lied about how far along she was in her pregnancy.

Harriet Wistrich, solicitor and director of Centre for Women’s Justice, said “anyone seeking to terminate a late pregnancy is almost certainly likely to be in crisis” and that “no useful purpose can possibly have been served by imprisoning this woman”.

She added: “The CPS need to review the application of the public interest test when making decisions to prosecute women who terminate pregnancies outside the strict legal guidelines.

“The current laws on abortion are outdated and illiberal, they are in urgent need of reform.

“Abortion should be decriminalised and access to early safe abortion made more regularly available.

“Falling short of decriminalisation, we call on the Director of Public Prosecutions to provide clear guidance on the prosecution of such cases which should be pursued only in the most exceptional cases, if at all.”

The 162-year-old law banning abortion was amended in 1967, legalising abortion with an authorised provider up to 28 weeks, which was later lowered to 24 weeks in 1991.

Chiara Capraro, Amnesty International UK’s women’s rights director, said Foster “should never been put through such a hideous ordeal in the first place”, and called for “abortion to be decriminalised in England and Wales”.

She said it was “deeply disturbing” Foster was jailed “because of a law dating back to 1861”.

Nahar Choudhury, chief executive of Solace, a domestic abuse charity, said: “The injustice of sending a woman to prison for seeking an abortion when in the UK violent crimes against women rarely reach court is shameful.

“Less than 3% of domestic abuse incidents are prosecuted, less than 1% of reported rapes end in conviction, and often offenders are given lower custodial sentences than Carla received.

“The abortion law used in her case dates back to 1861 – it is archaic and we stand with other campaigners calling for an urgent need for abortion to be decriminalised so that this cannot happen to women in the future.”

Labour MPs Harriet Harman and Stella Creasy also took to social media to call for reform.

Ms Harman tweeted: “Now we need sentencing guidelines to ensue no woman ever again sent to prison for own abortion. And new CPS guidance that “not in public interest” to prosecute such cases.”

Ms Creasy said on Twitter: “The relief that this woman can go home to be with her children is tempered by the knowledge there are more cases to come where women in England being prosecuted and investigated for having abortions under this archaic legislation. That’s why we need decrim now.”

A CPS spokesperson said: “These exceptionally rare cases are complex and traumatic.

“Our prosecutors have a duty to ensure that laws set by Parliament are properly considered and applied when making difficult charging decisions.

“The defendant in this case pleaded guilty to one count of unlawfully administering a poison or noxious thing with intent to procure a miscarriage and was sentenced by the court.”

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