At least 17 women have been investigated by police in England and Wales over the last eight years for illegally aborting or attempting to abort pregnancies, NationalWorld can reveal.
It comes as the US Supreme Court’s move to end the universal right to abortions across the country puts a spotlight back on reproductive rights in the UK.
One leading charity and abortion provider warns the UK’s laws are already being used to criminalise women who experience miscarriages.
The news from America is now likely to embolden anti-abortion campaigners at home, they added.
Abortion is illegal in England and Wales under the Offences Against the Person Act, a piece of Victorian legislation passed in 1861 – before women had the right to vote – which carries a potential life sentence for those who end their own pregnancy.
The 1967 Abortion Act introduced limited exceptions in which a woman can terminate a pregnancy up to 24 weeks in – but did not repeal the earlier law.
Under the rules, abortions can only be done if:
- a woman’s health or the health of her existing children is at risk, and
- two doctors sign off on the procedure, and
- it is carried out on approved premises (although temporary access to at-home abortion pills for early stage pregnancies introduced during Covid has now been made permanent in England and Wales)
Women can also get an abortion if there is substantial risk the baby would be seriously mentally or physically disabled.
Home Office data obtained by NationalWorld through the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act reveals at least 17 (and potentially up to 29) female suspects were the subject of police investigations under the 1861 Act between March 2014 and December 2021.
This means the suspected abortions or attempted abortions fell outside of the scope of the 1967 Abortion Act exceptions, becoming a criminal matter. The figures only include where police officially recorded a crime as having taken place. Incidents that never met this threshold may not be included.
The majority (14) were investigated for procuring an abortion, while three were probed on suspicion of acquiring materials to be used in one, such as drugs. It is not known if the women were seeking abortions for themselves or someone else – for instance, mothers acting on behalf of daughters.
The true number of cases could be higher still as nine out of 44 police forces could not provide data for the whole period.
Police forces also did not record the sex of the suspect in 21 out of the total 51 such crimes recorded (13 involved male suspects).
The number of cases involving females would rise to 29, if the cases where the sex was unknown had the same male to female split as in the cases where it was known.
Only two of the 17 known females were charged or cautioned with an offence, although two cases from 2021 are still outstanding with no outcome assigned to them.
Dr Jonathan Lord, an NHS gynaecologist and medical director of the charity and abortion provider MSI Reproductive Choices (formerly known as Marie Stopes), said it was often women “at the really desperate end of the spectrum” who may attempt to procure illegal abortions.
This includes those in coercive relationships being forced to continue a pregnancy against their will by a partner.
“It certainly shouldn’t be the women in that situation who are criminalised and potentially sent to prison for life,” he said. “They’re victims.”
Police also investigated a further 15 women for the crime of ‘intentional destruction of a viable unborn child’, a crime under the 1929 Infant Life (Preservation) Act, the FOI data shows.
The crime covers pregnancies of at least 28 weeks, at which point 1920s lawmakers considered a foetus capable of being born alive.
While these could also involve abortions, they may also concern cases where a female suspect assaults a pregnant woman and kills the unborn child. There is no breakdown available.
There were also 28 of these crimes recorded involving male suspects, and 36 with a suspect of unknown sex. Again, the number of female suspects could rise to 28 if the same proportion of the unknown sex cases involved women.
Multiple medical bodies have joined calls for the decriminalisation of abortion in recent years, including the Royal College of Midwives, Royal College of GPs, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the British Medical Association.
Such groups and other campaigners want the issue removed from the criminal sphere, and instead governed by medical regulatory frameworks.
Dr Lord said he did not think people realised ‘my body, my choice’ does not apply when it comes to abortions in the UK.
“There is no say from the woman herself,” he said. “From a legal perspective it’s only if two doctors agree that that is the best way forward for her [to have an abortion].
“It is completely out of kilter with modern medical practice which depends on a patient having information to make an informed choice and that they have autonomy in that decision.”
Campaign group We Trust Women – which is made up of a range of charities, political parties, unions and medical bodies – argues the restrictions in the 1967 Abortion Act limit quality of care, preventing a switch to midwife or nurse-led over doctor-led care
This can impact working class or rural women in particular, Dr Lord said, because of the need to travel to government-approved premises for abortions after 10 weeks.
Women who have suffered unexplained miscarriages or still births can also sometimes find themselves under suspicion due to the UK’s laws, Dr Lord warned, adding he knew of cases where police had interviewed women in hospital and confiscated their phones and laptops, leaving them isolated.
“Having all this when you’ve just suffered a tragedy is utterly devastating,” he said.
Dr Lord now fears the abortion bans sweeping America could result in similar efforts to restrict UK womens’ reproductive rights.
“It just shows that in a modern progressive democracy those that have an agenda to restrict reproductive rights are very well organised and can do so, so freedoms that everyone thought were safe and had been there for 50 years suddenly get taken away,” he said.
“And as we’re talking about America, our laws are actually a lot stricter than many of their laws because in most of the American states it’s not the woman who is criminalised, whereas in the UK it is.
“[In England] it will definitely embolden those who feel that their beliefs overrule those of anyone else, and I think we can expect to see more action as a result.”