Published by BBC NEWS - 20th February 2024
  • Published
Anonymous woman with positive pregnancy test at homeImage source, Getty Images

An unprecedented number of women are being investigated by police on suspicion of illegally ending a pregnancy, the BBC has been told.

Abortion provider MSI says it knows of up to 60 criminal inquiries in England and Wales since 2018, compared with almost zero before.

Some investigations followed natural pregnancy loss, File on 4 found.

Pregnancy loss is investigated only if credible evidence suggests a crime, the National Police Chiefs’ Council says.

File on 4 has spoken to women who say that they have been “traumatised” and left feeling “suicidal” following criminal investigations lasting years.

Speaking for the first time, one woman described how she had been placed under investigation after giving birth prematurely, despite maintaining that she had never attempted an abortion.

In England, Scotland and Wales, abortion is legal up to 24 weeks with the approval of two doctors. However, after 10 weeks the procedure must be carried out in an approved clinic or NHS hospital.

Outside of these circumstances, deliberately ending a pregnancy remains a criminal offence in England and Wales under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which carries a maximum punishment of life in prison.

Woman receiving abdominal ultrasound

Image source, Getty Images

Dr Jonathan Lord, medical director at MSI, which is one of the UK’s main abortion providers, believes the “unprecedented” number of women now falling under investigation may be linked to the police’s increased awareness of the availability of the “pills by post” scheme – introduced in England and Wales during the Covid-19 lockdown. Scotland also introduced a similar programme.

These “telemedicine” schemes, which allow pregnancies up to 10 weeks to be terminated at home, remain in effect.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), the UK’s other main abortion provider, says it has received more than two dozen police requests for the medical records of women who have enquired about an abortion.

In March, MPs are due to vote on an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill that would fully decriminalise abortion in England and Wales.

‘I just froze’

File on 4 spoke to Katie (not her real name), who has been under investigation for several years for illegally procuring an abortion.

She says she believed that she was approximately seven weeks pregnant when she contacted a provider and received abortion pills through the post.

After taking the pills at home, Katie says she went into labour and gave birth to a stillborn baby. She later realised the pregnancy had progressed beyond the 24-week limit.

“After I gave birth I just froze – nothing will ever prepare you for something like that,” she says.

“I didn’t know what to do. I just kept thinking: ‘How did this happen? How did I not know?'”

Katie was taken to hospital, where staff called the police. She was arrested on suspicion of self-inducing an abortion illegally and held in police custody before she was released on bail.

MSI’s Dr Lord says criminal investigations and prosecutions further “traumatise” women after abortions, and that women like Katie deserve “compassion” rather than “punishment”.

“These women are often vulnerable and in desperate situations – they need help, not investigation and punishment,” he says.

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Divya Talwar speaks to women who have been investigated by police on suspicion of illegally ending a pregnancy.

BBC Sounds

Katie could face a prison sentence. She maintains that she had no idea that she was over the legal time limit when she took the pills – she says she was still having regular periods and had not put on any weight.

“Being under investigation, it’s such a long process and months go past without you hearing anything,” she says.

“I have genuinely felt suicidal at times because of it.”

Melanie McDonagh, a journalist who has written widely about abortion and believes abortion should not be fully decriminalised, says the rise in police investigations is a consequence of “pills by post” and called for in-person consultations to be reintroduced at clinics.

“If we return to the situation before telemedicine in 2020, then there would be a guard against most of these cases happening in the first place,” she says.

‘Outdated law’

Abortion providers say the 1861 law that makes abortion a criminal offence is no longer fit for purpose – and the increase in cases being investigated means they want abortion to be fully decriminalised.

In Scotland, abortion is criminalised under common law. Abortion was fully decriminalised in Northern Ireland in 2020.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) says prosecutions under the law are rare: “We carefully consider the personal circumstances of those who end their pregnancy outside the legal parameters and address these as sensitively as possible.

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

Only four women have gone on to be convicted of procuring an illegal abortion in the past 20 years. One of these women, Carla Foster, was jailed in June last year.

Another woman, Bethany Cox, was cleared of the same charge in January. Since December 2022, four more women in England have appeared in court under the law. Charges were dropped against one and discontinued in another case, while two women face a potential trial.

Headquarters of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists Regents Park, London

Image source, Alamy

In some cases, women have been reported to police on suspicion of having an illegal abortion by healthcare workers, including midwives.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) issued new guidance to medical professionals in January, urging them not to report women to police if they suspected they may have illegally ended their pregnancies.

RCOG said it was concerned that “traumatised” women were being prosecuted after abortions.

But abortion providers MSI and BPAS say this does not go far enough, because women can still be subject to criminal investigation if they are reported by someone else.

However, Melanie McDonagh says health professionals should not be discouraged from contacting police and that they have a “responsibility” to both the woman and the foetus.

MPs are set to vote on the amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill that would decriminalise abortion next month. It will become law if approved by both the House of Commons and the Lords,

Those who coerce women into abortions against their will would not be protected from prosecution if it passes.

Labour MP Diana Johnson, who tabled the amendment, says it would bring England and Wales into line with Northern Ireland.

But opponents of the proposed law change say it sets a dangerous precedent.

Melanie McDonagh says changing the law would be “disastrous”.

She says: “If abortion was decriminalised, we would have more cases of women having abortions beyond the legal limit.

“We should be doing everything in our power to discourage this, and the law acts as a deterrent.”

‘Treated like criminals’

File on 4 has also found evidence of women falling under suspicion of illegally ending a pregnancy following a natural pregnancy loss – rather than taking pills – or premature birth.

Sammy, who lives with her husband and teenage son in the north of England, says she decided to have an abortion after falling pregnant last year.

'Sammy'

But staff at the abortion clinic told Sammy she was over the legal 24-week time limit.

“I was all over the place, I searched for information about adoption and abortion,” she says.

Even though abortion pills would not have been medically safe or legal to take, she says she did at one point put abortion tablets in her online basket and researched information about abortion methods as well as adoption.

She says, though, that she did not go through with the purchase of the tablets, deciding instead to come to terms with continuing the pregnancy.

But six days later, she says she started to feel unwell and realised she was going into premature labour.

Her son was born at home over three months premature, weighing only 1lb 5oz (700g).

“He was blue in colour, he wasn’t breathing, so I had to start CPR on him,” she says.

While she previously had wanted a termination, “that didn’t mean I didn’t want him to survive” after he was born, she says – and he did survive.

Sammy’s husband called 999 and police and paramedics arrived. After Sammy was taken to hospital, her husband was arrested on suspicion of procuring an illegal abortion. She was told she needed to be interviewed at the police station.

“We were treated like criminals from the get-go, but we’d done nothing wrong,” she says.

Sammy’s husband was released on bail, but they both remained under police investigation for over a year.

Last month, Sammy was told police were dropping the investigation because of a lack of evidence.

Dr Lord said that in another case, a teenager was investigated by hospital staff after a pregnancy loss because she had previously contacted an abortion provider.

He said: “This is a national scandal, which I think we will look back on in years to come and think, how was this allowed to happen?”

The police force that handled Sammy’s case said officers who arrived at her house had identified information to suggest that a crime may have been committed and a “thorough” investigation was required.

It said no-one involved would face any further police action.

Sammy says although she is relieved, she is still dealing with the impact of the investigation on her mental health.

“I still don’t sleep properly because I’m still constantly worrying about being taken away,” she says.

“I think without the support of my family, I wouldn’t still be here.”

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