"Many people assume that because abortion is relatively accessible in England,
it is not a crime. The fact that a woman has now received a 28-month prison
sentence for taking abortion pills past the legal time limit shows that this
assumption is wrong.
Abortion remains within the criminal law to some extent in almost every country
globally, despite the fact that it is a safe and relatively common procedure.
Laws can criminalise women and pregnant people, healthcare providers or anyone
who helps a woman get an abortion. The sentencing in Poland of activist Justyna
Wydrzyńska is one example. In March 2023, she received eight months community
service for aiding an abortion seeker.
The 28-month sentence for the 44-year-old mother of three in England reflects
the desperate need for a change to the law, in the form of decriminalisation.
In England and Wales, abortion is considered legal when it is performed by a
registered medical practitioner, authorised by two doctors and meets certain
conditions, such as risk to physical or mental health or risk of fetal anomaly.
Abortion can only be performed after 24 weeks gestation in very limited
The 1967 Abortion Act determines the situations in which an abortion is not a
criminal act and the gestational time limits when one can be performed. The act
was written in response to healthcare providers’ concerns about unsafe
“backstreet” abortions, rather than out of concern for women’s bodily rights or
Lawmakers did not want to make abortion available on request, therefore the
sections of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act which criminalise abortion
were not repealed. Sections 58 and 59 make it a criminal offence to administer
or supply drugs or use instruments to procure an abortion. The offences carry a
maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
While the 1967 Abortion Act applies in Scotland, the Offences Against the
Person Act does not. There, abortion is considered a crime in common law,
developed by court precedent.
The recent prosecution is not an anomaly. In the past eight years, police in
England and Wales have investigated at least 17 people for procuring their own
abortion outside the law. The legacy of the 1861 act as a Victorian colonial
era law continues to be felt globally, and still applies in countries such as
the Gambia, Malawi and Jamaica."
*** Xanni ***
Chief Scientist, Xanadu
Partner, Glass Wings
Manager, Serious Cybernetics