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Women in Great Britain putting themselves at risk of life imprisonment as use of illegal abortion medication rises

Embargoed until 00:01 Wednesday 15th February

Women in Great Britain putting themselves at risk of life imprisonment as use of illegal abortion medication rises

  • Data from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) shows 645 abortion pills were seized in 2015 and 2016 on their way to addresses in England, Wales, and Scotland
  • Number of pills seized rose 75-fold between 2013 and 2016
  • Women who self-induce an abortion at any gestation in pregnancy are committing an offence punishable by up to life imprisonment – yet majority unaware
  • The UK has the harshest punishment for self-induced abortion of any country in Europe bar Ireland              
  • bpas and other women’s groups support a bill proposed by Diana Johnson MP that would decriminalise abortion and protect women, to be read on 13th March 2017

Data from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has shown that hundreds of doses of abortion medication were seized on their way to addresses across England, Wales, and Scotland in the past two years as part of Operation Pangea. The MHRA figures also show that numbers of abortion pills seized has grown significantly over recent years, from just 5 pills in 2013 to 375 in 2016 – a 75-fold increase. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas) is warning today that as awareness of this medication grows, more women will use it – putting themselves at risk of criminalisation. The charity is calling for abortion to be decriminalised to protect women in difficult situations from criminal sanction.  

While buying prescription medication is not an offence, under a law passed in 1861, any woman who uses medication to procure her own abortion is committing a criminal offence punishable by up to life imprisonment1 - one of the harshest penalties for unlawful abortion in Europe. The 1967 Abortion Act did not overturn this law, but instead provided exemptions to allow abortion where women meet certain requirements and two doctors approve the request for an abortion. The law was drafted at a time when no-one could have imagined that pills could be used to safely induce abortions, let alone that they could be ordered online. Today therefore, any woman who self-induces her own miscarriage in this way from the moment of implantation could be prosecuted under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act.

Previous polling by bpas found that fewer than one in 8 members of the public (12%) said they were aware of current law.2 The charity believes few women who take these pills understand the legal risk they are taking when they do so, as it is unique to abortion.

 Testimonies released by Women on Web, a not-for profit online abortion provider which does not routinely send pills to Great Britain, demonstrate why some women feel unable to access legal services. The current interpretation of the 1967 Act means that women requesting medical abortion must sometimes attend multiple, clinically unnecessary appointments at a specialist clinic in order to meet the terms of the law - yet this can be an insurmountable obstacle to care for some women.  

“I've just found out I'm pregnant and I can't keep the baby, can you tell me if I can get the tablets from you please. I am in the UK but it's impossible for me to get to a clinic due to having a disabled daughter who I can't leave and I have no one else I can trust. I'm in a complete mess, clinics said I have to leave my daughter at home but I have no one else at all to have her, due to her disabilities a nursery can't have her. I'm 1 week late. I'm in good health and have no allergies or medical conditions. Please I'm really desperate for help.”

“I live in [a rural area in England] and have no friends and the relatives I have I am not close to. I was hoping to have a termination in the comfort of my own home without judgmental eyes and without worrying about my husband knowing. I fear what would happen if he did. I have 3 children and my 3rd is 11 months old. I considered an abortion when he was conceived and had a terrible pregnancy and still suffering from post natal depression. I will try to seek help, anonymously if possible. I'm in great need of help.”

“I have visited my GP last week and he referred me to my local NHS service. They can only offer me a medical abortion with three visits to the hospital on separate days. On the second visit I am expected to stay there all day. I work full time and have two young sons so getting all that time off and childcare is going to be very difficult, probably impossible.”

“I'm a young student and I want to have an abortion because I do not have the financial resources to bring up a child and I'm already drowning in student loans also I don' t feel ready for responsibility of raising it and I want to finish my studies. I live in United Kingdom, I know abortion is legal there, but being a foreign student I can not afford this country prices of procedure and the place in line for supported abortions is just to long and not guaranteed. I feel absolutely horrible and desperate and womenonweb.org seems to be the only place that could help”

On 13th March, Diana Johnson MP is proposing a Ten Minute Rule bill that would repeal the relevant sections of the Offences Against the Person Act and decriminalise abortion. While it is only a fledgling bill, this is the first piece of pro-choice legislation to be debated in the House of Commons since the 1967 Abortion Act and if it became law, would protect women who do need to use online abortion pills from criminal sanction.

Ann Furedi, bpas Chief Executive, said:

“At bpas, we do all that we can to make abortion services as accessible as possible, However it is clear that for some women the barriers to clinic-based treatment feel insurmountable. These are women in desperate and difficult circumstances. They are not criminals deserving of life imprisonment.   

“Evidence suggests that as awareness of online abortion pills is increasing, so too are the numbers of women using these methods. Women in these circumstances should not face criminal punishment and we should not support a legal framework which threatens just that. Fifty years after the 1967 Act was passed, it is time to bring women’s reproductive healthcare into the twenty-first century and remove abortion from the criminal law. By doing so we would remove the clinically unnecessary legal barriers to treatment that make in-clinic care impossible for some women, and protect those who need to use online pills from prosecution and punishment.

“In the meantime, we urge these desperate women to contact us so we can help find a safe, legal solution.”

A wide-range of women’s organisations and medical groups support the decriminalisation of abortion, including the Women’s Equality Party, the Royal College of Midwives, the Fawcett Society, and the Family Planning Association.

Sophie Walker, leader of the Women's Equality Party, said:

Women's equality and wider choices depend on having control of our own bodies. In 2017 it should not be the case that women still have to fight for their reproductive rights and access to sexual health care. At our first party conference last November, Women's Equality Party members voted in favour of full decriminalisation of abortion across the UK and Ireland. We must stand together to say: Our Bodies, Our Lives, Our Rights.”

Section 58, Offences Against the Person Act 1861

2 Survey carried out by YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 2036 GB adults (18+). Fieldwork was undertaken between  16th - 17th July 2015.  The survey was carried out online. The question read:

Under current law in England, Scotland and Wales, a woman who intentionally ends her own pregnancy without the permission of 2 doctors can go to prison for up to 12 years.

Before today, were you aware of this?

The full data set is available from bpas.

ENDS

For more information please contact the bpas press office on 0207 061 3377, 07788 725185 or press@bpas.org

Notes to Editors:

About bpas

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service, 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 www.bpas.org