Carla Foster: Urge for reform as mother jailed for ‘out of date’ abortion laws introduced in 1861
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Calls for an overhaul of abortion laws have been discussed after a woman was jailed for taking pills to terminate her pregnancy late during the Covid lockdown. The 44-year-old was convicted of inducing an abortion outside the legal limit by using the "pills by post" scheme introduced during lockdown.
Campaigners have urged a reform after she received a sentence of 28 months, 14 of which will be spent in custody. Carla Foster was between 32 and 34 weeks pregnant when she took medication during lockdown, Stoke-on-Trent Crown Court heard. Foster was initially charged with child destruction, which she denied, and later pleaded guilty to an offence under Section 58 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.
Abortion is legal up to 24 weeks, and the procedure must be carried out in a clinic after 10 weeks. In court, Foster said lockdown and minimising face-to-face appointments had changed access to healthcare, adding: "This will haunt her forever."
However, the CPS argued that she had been aware of abortion limits and had provided false information during a remote medical consultation.”
Chair of the Commons equalities committee Caroline Nokes MP has said parliament should debate overhauling abortion rules and told the BBC the 1861 law used to prosecute mother-of-three Carla Foster was "out of date".
Under the Victorian era law, women "who use drugs or instruments" that are "unlawfully administered" to cause an abortion can be "kept in penal servitude for life", meaning that they can face life imprisonment.
Abortion was legalised with the Abortion Act in 1967 but the 1861 law was not repealed, meaning that parts of the law still apply - for example when a woman carries out an abortion over the time limit.
Ms Nokes, who chairs the Commons Women and Equalities Committee, said MPs should "decide in the 21st Century whether we should be relying on legislation that is centuries old".
The Tory MP told BBC Radio 4’s World Tonight programme: "This is not something that has been debated in any great detail for many years now.
"And cases like this, although tragic and thankfully very rare, throw into sharp relief that we are relying on legislation that is very out of date. It makes a case for Parliament to start looking at this issue in detail."
Labour MP Stella Creasy also called for urgent reform, telling BBC Two’s Newsnight programme: "I don’t understand in whose interests this case was."
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) said it was "shocked and appalled" the "archaic law" had been used to prosecute Foster. Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Crown Prosecution Service said cases like these were "exceptionally rare... complex and traumatic".
They added: "Our prosecutors have a duty to ensure that laws set by Parliament are properly considered and applied when making difficult charging decisions."
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s official spokesperson said he was "not aware" of any government plans to change abortion laws.