- Today, the High Court will hear a judicial review of the decision to prosecute a mother from Northern Ireland who bought abortion medication for her then-15-year-old daughter.
- The mother was charged after police seized her daughter’s confidential medical records without her consent.
- The mother is being prosecuted under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act which has been the focus of intense parliamentary debate over recent months. MPs are planning two parliamentary bids to repeal the relevant sections to protect women from future prosecution.
- Coalition of charities are intervening to argue that continuing the prosecution would deter other women from seeking aftercare when needed and create a “chill factor” among clinicians who may feel compelled to refer women they suspect of using abortion pills to the police.
Today, the High Court of Justice in Northern Ireland will hear a judicial review brought forward by a mother who is facing criminal prosecution for providing abortion medication purchased online illegally, to her then-15-year-old daughter.
In 2013 the daughter fell pregnant after being involved in a relationship which was both physically and verbally abusive. These incidents continued after she informed her boyfriend that she believed that she was pregnant and included threats to ‘kick the baby out of her and stab it if it was born.’ Feeling unable to travel to England for abortion care, her mother purchased pills online from the clinician-led not-for-profit site Women on Web. Following the abortion, the mother sought support from her GP for her daughter due to concerns about her abusive relationship. This lead to a police investigation, and the daughter’s medical records were seized without her consent. The mother was subsequently charged with procuring and supplying poison with the intent to cause a miscarriage by the Public Prosecution Service of NI (PPS) under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. The mother is now pursuing a judicial review of the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland’s (PPS) decision to prosecute.
A coalition of charities, the Family Planning Association (FPA), the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas), and the Abortion Support Network (ASN) are intervening in support of the mother’s application. The charities argue that a prosecution in these circumstances would deter women from seeking medical advice if needed because they may fear that they would face criminal punishment. While abortion medication is safe, there can be side effects, and the charities warn that women must be able to seek confidential follow-up care in the rare event of serious complications, such as haemorrhage, without fearing risk of criminal sanction.
The charities are also concerned that a prosecution could also have a “chilling effect” on medical practice in Northern Ireland. Section 5 of the Criminal Law Act (NI) 1967 creates the offence of withholding information if a person knows or believes an offence has been committed. The charities believe that this case could force clinicians to adopt a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach when faced with a patient who may have used abortion medication for fear that they would either have a duty to report their patient to the police, or that they may be compelled by prosecution services to hand over a woman’s confidential medical records. This could seriously undermine medical practitioner’s ability to provide the best possible care to women who they suspect may have taken abortion pills. The charities argue that the detrimental impact on the clinician-patient relationship represented by this case means that it is not in the public interest to prosecute.
Over recent months, calls for reform of the criminal sanctions for abortion contained within the OAPA have gathered pace. In June, a Supreme Court judgement found that the current abortion law in Northern Ireland is in breach of human rights legislation, resulting in emergency parliamentary debates on repealing sections 58 and 59 of the OAPA across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Stella Creasy MP has already signalled that there is cross-party support for such an amendment to the government’s forthcoming Domestic Abuse bill, while Diana Johnson MP has stated that she will also pursue a private members bill on decriminalising abortion this autumn.
Commenting on the case:
Clare Murphy, Director of External Affairs at bpas, said:
“The UK’s archaic abortion law risks turning a mother who was trying to protect her young daughter in to a criminal, and has caused unimaginable pain and distress to their whole family. Ministers insist abortion law reform must wait until the Northern Ireland Assembly returns, but today’s case demonstrates that the women of Northern Ireland cannot wait any longer.
“The UK government has a moral and legal duty to act to protect more women from criminalisation. If they do not, it is only a matter of time before we see another desperate and vulnerable woman on trial for seeking the medical care they are currently so cruelly denied.”
Ruairi Rowan, FPA Advocacy Manager, said:
“The decision to prosecute a mother for facilitating an abortion flies in the face of the recommendations of all major international human rights committees that abortion should be decriminalised.
“Public opinion in Northern Ireland states abortion should be a matter for medical regulation and not criminal law, and earlier this month Belfast City Council reaffirmed their support for decriminalisation. FPA believes that abortion is an essential part of women’s reproductive health and it should not be considered or implied to be a criminal act. We urge the Court to allow this application for judicial review.”
Mara Clarke, Founder of Abortion Support Network, said:
“We are very discouraged by this case. Our clients are those most impacted by Northern Ireland’s draconian law – those who are without financial resources. Despite the fact that people resident in Northern Ireland have been able to access free care in England since 29 July 2017, many people are continuing to risk criminal prosecution by ordering safe but illegal medication.
“We have heard from several women who are unable to travel even with financial support – women unable to get away from abusive partners, women with children and no childcare, and women with caring responsibilities for special needs children or elder relatives. While free care in England and top up funding from ASN where needed is helpful, it still leaves some women behind. Northern Ireland needs provision in country, or, at the very least, not prosecuting those who can’t travel for accessing World Health Organisation-certified safe medication.”
For more information please contact the bpas press office on 0207 061 3377, 07788 725185 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Notes to Editors:
About the interveners:
bpas is a charity which sees more than 70,000 women a year and provides reproductive healthcare services including pregnancy counselling, abortion care, miscarriage management and contraception, at clinics across the UK. It supports and advocates for reproductive choice. More information can be found at bpas.org.
The sexual health charity FPA gives straightforward information and support on sexual health, sex and relationships to everyone in the UK. FPA educates, informs and supports people through our specialist sexual health programmes, our websites and publications, our training for professionals and our public awareness campaigns. Our programme of work includes the provision the only impartial pregnancy choices and post-abortion counselling service in Northern Ireland, supporting around 300 women each year. More information can be found at www.fpa.org.uk
Abortion Support Network (www.asn.org.uk) is a charity that provides financial assistance, confidential, non-judgemental information and accommodation in volunteer homes to women forced to travel from Ireland, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man and pay privately for abortions in England. The cost ranges between £400 and £2000 depending on circumstance and stage of pregnancy. While many organisations campaign for much needed law reform, ASN is the only group providing women travelling for abortions with the thing they need most immediately: money.