UK – She felt like a criminal and she was treated like one: Record number of women facing “illegal abortion” investigations

Police investigations into abortions are at the highest levels in two decades. 

Source: ONS Home Office

Sarah (not her real name) says she’s still struggling with the impact the police investigation had on her life, even though the case has now been dropped.

Sarah’s front room is filled with pictures of her smiling baby. He’s now 18 months old. But for almost a year, she was investigated on suspicion of illegally trying to abort him.

In January 2023, Sarah had just delivered her baby prematurely. She called the medical emergency number 999, but before the paramedics turned up, police came knocking at her door. “The front room was just full of police. 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 wasn’t 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 wasn’t feeling very well and called in sick to work. “Throughout the day, I’d had back pain and wasn’t 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 I’ve just had the baby’.”

He was born at 25 weeks, almost three months premature. He wasn’t 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.

Her husband rang 999 (the emergency phone number), and the paramedics gave CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) instructions over 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 anything 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. [By whom is not stated…]

Sarah’s case was dropped earlier this year and is no longer active.

However, Jonathan Lord, an NHS consultant gynaecologist and co-chair of the British Society of Abortion Care Providers said that 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 they’ve been treated… is a national scandal.”

An illegal abortion in England and Wales is defined as any attempt to “procure a miscarriage” (1861 legal language) where it is not signed off by two doctors, or abortion pills have not been prescribed. He says he’s seen a rise in police approaching abortion providers for records and information about women who had considered an abortion, and that 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 says.

The official numbers are as follows: 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 number in two decades. 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 number in two decades. Then, between 2020 and 2023, 11 cases went to court. Five resulted in a conviction.

Experts can’t 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 – which are legal if approved by two doctors and take place up to 24 weeks.

POSTSCRIPT: [Many questions remain: are abortion providers handing confidential information over to the police? If yes, why? And if they have refused to provide what is confidential information, what have they been threatened with, and then what did they do? Why have almost none of these cases made it into the media? Why do so few abortion rights advocates seem to know anything about most of these cases? Editor]

SOURCE: Sky News, by Mollie Malone, 17 June 2024.