Reproductive rights groups are calling for legislative changes after a British woman was jailed for terminating a pregnancy outside the legal limit using drugs she obtained in the mail.
Carla Foster, a 44-year-old mother of three, was given a 28-month sentence, with the judge ordering that she should be incarcerated for 14 months, with the rest to be served on probation.
Ahead of the sentencing Monday, abortion rights advocates and some medical experts had expressed concern about a recent increase in criminal investigations into alleged late-term abortions, warning a harsh sentence could deter vulnerable patients from seeking medical care. Some antiabortion advocates, meanwhile, have called for an end to the at-home use of abortion pills.
Foster received the abortion medication under a program introduced by the government during the pandemic that allowed women to administer the drugs at home without an in-person consultation.
The program was approved for pregnancies of up to 10 weeks. But a British court found that Foster gave the British Pregnancy Advisory Service’s telemedicine provider “false” information that she was around seven weeks pregnant.
Her internet search history on the day that she administered the first of two abortion drugs suggested she believed she was about 28 weeks along, the judge said at a sentencing hearing on Monday.
Two days later, on May 11, 2020, she took a second drug and delivered a stillborn baby that evening. A post-mortem examination concluded that Foster was between 32 and 34 weeks pregnant.
In his sentencing remarks, Justice Edward Pepperall described it as a “tragic case,” noting that Foster has been “wracked by guilt.” At the time of the termination, Foster had been forced to move back in with her estranged partner during Britain’s coronavirus lockdowns, and had attempted to conceal that she was pregnant with another man’s child, Pepperall said.
While he recognized her “emotional turmoil,” Pepperall said his duty was to apply the laws as determined by the country’s parliament. He dismissed a letter, signed by a number of health groups including the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Royal College of Midwives, that was sent to the court calling for a lenient sentence.
“If the medical profession considers that judges are wrong to imprison women who procure a late abortion outside the 24-week limit then it should lobby parliament to change that law and not judges who are charged with the duty of applying the law,” Pepperall said.
“I do not accept that imprisonment in this case is likely to deter women and girls from lawfully seeking abortion care within the 24-week limit. Rather, it might be said that it would reinforce the limit of that law,” the judge added.
The defense had argued that Foster was prevented from seeking regular health care during Britain’s months-long coronavirus lockdown.
How abortion laws in the U.S. compare with those in other countries
Abortions are legal in Britain until 24 weeks — and are generally only carried out after that time if a mother’s life is endangered or the child would be born with a severe disability, and only under medical supervision in a hospital or clinic.
Some antiabortion groups argue that the British abortion rules are too lax, noting that many European countries limit nonmedical abortions to the first trimester, and have called for an end to the at-home use of abortion pills.
In the United States, the Supreme Court in April preserved access to the widely used abortion pill mifepristone, although the legal battle is continuing. It is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration through 10 weeks gestation.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service, which provides abortion services and campaigns for women’s reproductive rights, said the number of women facing criminal investigation under what it described as “cruel and outdated” abortion laws is increasing. It is organizing a protest march in London on Saturday to demand legislative changes.
“We are seeing a mother of three children, one with special needs, being imprisoned because of a law that was written in the 1800s that is simply out of date for today’s country,” Stella Creasy, an opposition Labour lawmaker, said on Sky News, calling for “urgent” legal reforms. She said the current laws deny women “bodily autonomy.”
“Over the last three years, there has been an increase in the numbers of women and girls facing the trauma of lengthy police investigations and threatened with up to life imprisonment under our archaic abortion law,” Clare Murphy, the chief executive of BPAS, said in a statement Monday. “Vulnerable women in the most incredibly difficult of circumstances deserve more from our legal system.”
But Catherine Robinson, spokesperson for Right To Life UK, said in a statement: “Rather than take responsibility for sending out abortion pills 22 weeks beyond the legal limit for at-home abortions and risking the health of the mother as well as her unborn child … BPAS is now cynically using this woman’s tragic experience of using their abortion service to lobby the Government to introduce extreme abortion legislation throughout the United Kingdom.”