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    Home / College Guide / I felt like a criminal: Record number of women facing illegal abortion investiga
     Posted on Monday, June 17 @ 00:00:10 PDT
    College

    Sarahs front room is filled with pictures of her smiling baby. Hes now 18 months old. But for almost a year, she was investigated on suspicion of illegally trying to abort him. In January 2023, Sarah (not her real name) had just delivered her baby prematurely. She called 999 but before paramedics turned up, police came knocking at her door. The front room was just full of police, Sarah tells Sky News. I felt like a criminal. Her pregnancy was unplanned and she had considered a termination. She went to an abortion clinic but was told she was three days over the legal limit of 24 weeks. I wasnt expecting to be that far gone, she says. I was hardly showing. It was a massive shock. When she got home, she panicked and started searching adoption, and adoption to friends and family, online. She even put abortion pills in her online shopping basket - but never bought them. After a few days, Sarah came to terms with the pregnancy. But on the Monday morning, she wasnt feeling very well and called in sick to work. Throughout the day, Id had back pain and wasnt getting any better, she says. And then at about seven in the evening, eight maybe, I went upstairs to the toilet... and he was here.

    I rang my husband who was downstairs to say I think Ive just had a baby. He was born at 25 weeks, almost three months premature. He wasnt breathing. His parents wrapped him in a towel and took him downstairs. He was blue in colour, there was no movement. It was horrible, Sarah says. When her husband rang 999, the paramedics gave CPR instructions on the phone. But before they arrived, the police came. It was the start of an investigation that would last a year. The police force involved said it attended to assist medical professionals and ensure necessary statutory processes were followed - as they would with any involving the potential for the sudden unexplained death of a baby or a child. It was quickly identified that there was information to suggest a criminal offence may have been committed, the force added. Sarahs case was dropped earlier this year and is no longer active. Her story comes as the British Society of Abortion Care Providers and the British Pregnancy Advice Service (BPAS) - one of the main licensed abortion clinics - today issue a statement saying women under investigation on suspicion of illegally abortions are incredibly distressed that a vote on abortion law wont take place this parliamentary term.

    As soon as the new parliament returns in July, it must urgently act, BPAS says. Before the general election was called, MPs were due to debate abortion law. Amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill aimed at stopping women facing criminal sanction for ending their pregnancy had been proposed. A national scandal Theres an increasing number of women who are facing investigation and suspicion that they have had an illegal abortion, says Jonathan Lord, an NHS consultant gynaecologist and co-chair of the British Society of Abortion Care Providers. Anecdotally, he knows of up to 100 women who have been investigated in the last year, which he says is unprecedented. What these women are going through and the horrific way theyve been treated... its a national scandal, he adds. Dr Lord says hes seen a rise in police approaching abortion providers for records and information about women who had considered an abortion. Responding to police inquiries has become a major part of his job. In no other field of medicine would you expect the police to ask for medical records, they are confidential for a reason, he tells Sky News. The official numbers are lower than what Dr Lord reports, but still at record levels.

    Between 2022 and 2023, 29 people in England and Wales were recorded as under police investigation on suspicion of procuring an illegal abortion - the highest in two decades. And Freedom of Information data for Sky News shows theres been a rise in the number of people taken to court for this offence. Between 2010 and 2019, 17 cases reached court in England and Wales. Only six of those cases resulted in a conviction. Thats about a third. But in just a few years, between 2020 and 2023, 11 cases went to court. Almost half of those (five) resulted in a conviction. An illegal abortion is any attempt to procure a miscarriage where its not signed off by two doctors, or the medication hasnt been prescribed. Experts cant fully explain what is fuelling this but suggest a combination of factors might be at play, including increased police awareness of the ease of at home abortions. Prosecutions not in public interest In England, Wales and Scotland, it is legal to terminate a pregnancy up to 24 weeks in an NHS clinic or approved abortion provider, with the permission of two doctors. In Northern Ireland, abortion was fully decriminalised in 2020. Women can have a surgical abortion or they can take two pills - known as a medical termination.

    Since COVID, the pills by post scheme became a permanent measure. It means both pills can be taken at home in the early stages of pregnancy following an online telephone consultation. Having a termination outside of these circumstances in England and Wales is illegal under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. The maximum penalty is life in prison. I think abortion care should come under the umbrella of healthcare, says Lucie Baylis, an unplanned pregnancy nurse at Royal Cornwall NHS hospital. I dont think there is any public interest in prosecuting women who seek abortion outside of the legal parameters. Earlier this year, new guidance was issued by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists urging medics not to report patients if they suspect a woman of illegally ending their own pregnancy. In the first official guidance issued of its kind, it says a healthcare worker must justify any disclosure of patient data or face potential fitness to practise proceedings. Ms Baylis said it seems mad women should be passed to police or authorities rather than handled as a healthcare patient. Law should follow the science But others think moves to change the law are irresponsible and would only have the impact of incentivising women to have late-term abortions by themselves, with no medical oversights, says Calum Miller, a doctor and medical ethics professor at the University of Oxford.

    The current law acts as a deterrent to stop this, he says. Data from other countries is very clear that when you make a certain kind of abortion legal, it does become more common. As an example, in New Zealand, there was a 43% increase in abortions after 20 weeks, he says. Dr Miller feels proposed amendments have the aim of legalising abortion up until birth, which isn’t in step with British public opinion. In an October YouGov poll, 25% of people said they thought the current 24-week legal limit was too late and should be reduced, while 49% said it was about right, and 6% believed it should be extended. Abortion laws should follow the science. And it should say at the very least that if a baby is potentially viable, abortion should not be an option, says Dr Miller. While Sarah accepts why she was investigated - for looking for pills online - she is still struggling with the impact the investigation has had on her life. It never leaves your mind, she says. Having to live with it for 50-odd weeks… You think am I going to get a knock on the door? Are we going to get taken away? Read more: Inside social medias illicit abortion trade New law for abortion clinic buffer zones backed by MSPs The police force involved with Sarahs case told us: Immediate action was taken to secure evidence to ensure that a thorough investigation could take place.

    This was a complex investigation, requiring extensive forensic and medical evidence, and unfortunately these kind of enquiries take time. The National Police Chiefs Council and the Crown Prosecution Service also say these investigations are rare and would only be initiated where there is credible information to suggest criminal activity... often as a result of concerns raised from medical professionals. They say they come with unique factors and personal circumstances that are carefully considered. (c) Sky News 2024: I felt like a criminal: Record number of women facing illegal abortion investigations

     
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