Charter for Choice

A prison sentence for self-induced abortion is unjust, unreasonable and inhuman.

Ann Furedi, Chief Executive of British Pregnancy Advisory Service

How can it be in the public interest to send a woman to prison for two and a half years for inducing her own late abortion at home with drugs bought on the internet? Did the judge think she needed to be interned to stop her repeating the offence herself? Or, to stop her trying to illegally abort the pregnancies of others? Or is the sentence intended to serve as a warning to other women who might try to induce their own labour just weeks before it would be expected at full-term?

None of these reasons seem likely. Yet, shortly before Christmas, a 24 year old women from the North of England was served an immediate custodial service of 30 months for using medicines to end her 32 week pregnancy at home in the delivery of a dead baby.

There is nothing about Natalie Towers – who collapsed (literally) in the dock when she was sentenced – that suggests the hardened criminal that we need protection from. On the contrary, she sounds like just the kind of confused and messed up woman you might expect to find in circumstances as rare, bizarre and tragic as these.

During the trial we learned that she already had a child from a previous pregnancy, which she had concealed. She had a history of psychological and emotional problems, and told medical staff that she had taken drugs to cause the abortion because she “couldn’t deal with the stress” of being pregnant.

This seems to one of those cases that screams out for compassion and understanding. Even the Pro-Life Alliance have said that “one must pity rather than blame someone who is so desperate.”

Passing sentence, Mr Justice Jay said that it, “had nothing to do with the general immorality or otherwise of termination of unborn fetuses”. So what, then, was the sentence “to do with”?

‘Criminality’ is the only framework in which the police and the judiciary feel they can place termination of pregnancy when it falls outside the parameters the law clearly permits. They understand early abortion as it is legally performed by doctors. Even conservative elements in British society have become quite good at accepting early abortion as a back up to contraception. After all, few people want to force women to have babies they can’t, or don’t want to, care for. Later abortions carried out by doctors are generally accepted (albeit reluctantly) as a back-up to the back-up. Throughout the country, the National Health Service funds abortion services up to 24 weeks of pregnancy. Even when local doctors object to abortion, it is possible for women to refer themselves into locally funded services – as long as they know who to call and where to go for help.

24 weeks seems a long time to sort out a problem pregnancy, now reliable pregnancy tests, on sale for as little as 99p, can confirm conception even before a missed-period. And for most women, probably it is quite enough time… but not for all.

However straightforward society makes access to abortion, women’s lives and pregnancies are far from straightforward. Not all women know when they conceived (or had sex). Not all women keep track of their periods (and not all are regular). Not all women experience symptoms, or show signs, of pregnancy. Not all women can face up to their problems. Not all women know where to turn for help.

It is a travesty of justice that laws exist to send a woman to prison for causing her own abortion. It is inhuman to punish a woman for acting alone, in desperation, to treat herself in a way a clinic might lawfully have treated her weeks earlier.

No woman in Britain should need to use abortion drugs obtained on-line. But they will be used, at early and later gestations, just as they are in other countries, until women know that they can obtain the confidential care and support they need free of stigma and the threat of prosecution. It benefits no one to use the law to terrorise and punish women dealing with difficult pregnancies.

In the weeks before Christmas, a 15 year old girl whose newborn baby died following an apparently hidden pregnancy and an unattended birth was referred to the Crown Court and charged with concealing a birth, infanticide and manslaughter (the cause of the baby’s death has not in fact been identified). In Essex, a couple were arrested on suspicion of murder, following the woman’s miscarriage at about 21 weeks into a pregnancy she was reportedly unaware of. This was subsequently downgraded to suspicion of concealing a birth, after the father covered up the evidence of the miscarriage on the bathroom floor to protect his young children, which seems quite a sensible thing to do. The couple spent the night in a police cell and have been released on bail until February pending “further enquiries”. Unsurprisingly, they say they feel they have been treated like animals.

Cases like these may be phenomenally rare, despite this recent cluster of stories – but all those involved in circumstances like these deserve a response that offers compassion, rather than assuming criminality.