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It’s time to stop jailing women for abortions

(Adobe Stock)

3 min read

Last month, a mother of three children was sentenced to 28 months’ imprisonment for ending her pregnancy. She was prosecuted under Section 58 of the Offences against the Person Act, a piece of legislation dating from 1861 that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

While thankfully rare, this tragic case presents important questions about whether current criminal legislation regarding this aspect of women’s reproductive healthcare is fit for purpose. Chief among them is whether it is right for abortion care to be the only form of healthcare subject to criminal law. Certainly, concerns have been raised by those within the women’s healthcare sector that this recent judgment could deter women from seeking urgent medical and health care.

As chair of the APPG on Sexual and Reproductive Health, I was pleased to see telemedicine for early medical abortion – a safe and effective pathway – made permanent in England, Wales and Scotland last year. This followed nearly two years of careful scrutiny of the evidence, as well as campaigning from clinicians and women. The result was a clear majority in Parliament to keep telemedicine when the government planned to scrap it after the pandemic.

It simply cannot be in the public interest to prosecute women who are in the most difficult and heartbreaking circumstances

One in three British women will have an abortion in their lifetime. Abortion law in England and Wales is the oldest healthcare law in existence. The criminal law covering abortion dates back to a time when Queen Victoria was on the throne. 

Sadly, it is being used today to prosecute women in extremely difficult circumstances who have sought medical help. This has resulted in instances of healthcare professionals reporting women to the police when they suspect them of attempting to end their own pregnancy.
When the Abortion Act was passed, it placed England and Wales at the forefront of global efforts to protect women’s health. But as law and practice around the world developed, our law has fallen behind other countries such as Canada and New Zealand. In 2019, abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland. 

There is now an unjustifiable discrepancy in the criminal law and healthcare provision applied to women across our nations of the United Kingdom.

Leading medical bodies, including the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare, and the Royal College of Midwives have raised concerns about the chilling effect of the current legal position. Thirty-three medical bodies have come out in support of women being removed from the criminal law system for ending their own pregnancies; and for healthcare professionals being able to provide abortion care without the threat of criminal sanctions.

Decriminalisation of abortion does not mean deregulation. Time limits and other rules would still apply in any new regulatory regime. 

Statistics from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service show that 90 per cent of the country believe in a woman’s right to choose. I do not believe any woman should be forced to continue a pregnancy against her will, and it simply cannot be in the public interest to prosecute women who are in the most difficult and heartbreaking circumstances. The threat of criminal sanctions risks deterring the most vulnerable patients from seeking help from the NHS or being open and honest about their healthcare needs.

I therefore call on the government to engage with the Royal Colleges of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Midwives, the Women’s Health Ambassador and many others to develop a new regulatory regime for abortion that does not involve putting women in prison. 


Dame Diana Johnson, Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull North and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sexual and Reproductive Health

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