Tragic stories of abuse should not lead the UK to decriminalise abortion

Laura’s Story, a recent article in the Sunday Times, recounts the wrenching experience of a young British woman who was prosecuted for self-abortion at 30 weeks. Laura’s action is described as taking place in a context of domestic abuse. The author showcases the failure of the legal process to identify Laura as a victim of abuse, and argues that Laura’s story demonstrates why abortion needs to be decriminalised.

Many of us will feel compassion for Laura, who describes abuse of various kinds including a furious, violent reaction from her boyfriend on learning of the pregnancy. After taking, on his instructions, pills bought online (he was opposed to her going to a doctor), Laura delivered a dead baby, with much loss of blood. She is quoted as saying “I wanted to die. Honestly, I just felt like the whole world had just ended in front of my eyes.”

Laura does not defend her action: reflecting on her court hearing, she says “I don’t think I could have been any more remorseful.” She spent two years in prison, away from her other child, though she is now living with her daughter and has completed a degree.

Should the law be changed, then?

In proposing any change to our laws, we must always ask: is this change a just one? Would it make things better or worse? Even aside from any question of foetal rights, we must consider the very real risks to women that decriminalisation poses. It is not only babies who would be harmed by removing criminal sanctions for abortion, including self-abortion, for any reason, including at 30 weeks.

Decriminalisation makes late abortion ‘thinkable’

Abortion law and practice in Britain, while permissive, does offer some protection to women by restricting access to late abortions, which must be carried out in a medical setting. That does not make these abortions morally acceptable – indeed, abortion doctors themselves find them troubling. Moreover, abortion is legal in Britain up to, and even during, birth if the foetus is disabled. That is disturbing enough – but expanding access to this harrowing practice, perhaps allowing self-induced late abortion in addition, would harm and traumatize more women.

Such abortions are rare, but if there were no legal bar, desperation would likely drive more women to abort, and more boyfriends to urge or insist they do so. Late abortion would become more “thinkable” for vulnerable women and their sometimes violent partners.

We must remember that with abortion at 30 weeks, the child could normally be born alive at the exact stage at which the abortion is undergone. Arranging to deliver in hospital, albeit with some delay, would likely have resulted in a live baby and a mother hopefully supported – help offered, social workers alerted and so on. Childbirth or impending childbirth, unlike pills by post, can “force the issue” and get vulnerable women the support they need. More than one life can be saved in this way.

“Laura’s story” and other recent articles give the impression that the police are overactive in seeking information and prosecutions for illegal abortions. But this can be looked at in another light: the advent of pills by post, whether obtained from illegal sellers or “reputable” providers, has placed the police in an invidious situation. Laws against harmful actions, like abortion at 30 weeks, help prevent such actions taking place. Are women to receive no such protection from pressure whether internal or external to self-abort? And their developed, sentient babies: do they get no protection either?

A barrier against infanticide

There is also the issue of infanticide: not all women who feel driven to abort at home at 30 weeks will stop at abortion if the baby is born alive. Again, compassion for the woman who kills her newborn need not preclude prosecution for infanticide, even if mercy is routinely shown in sentencing. Do we really want a society where, if a dead baby is found and the mother suspected, no action will be taken? Do babies not matter when it comes to investigating deaths?

If coercion is found with either abortion or infanticide, the coercer should meet the full force of the law.

Until she was out of prison, Laura never told the police of her boyfriend’s involvement in the abortion. The boyfriend had threatened to kill her if she did so. Nor did she reveal the boyfriend’s abuse to hospital staff, in court or in a psychiatric report before she was sentenced, saying that the relevant people never asked her and that she was, again, too frightened to speak. The boyfriend was questioned, but never charged or prosecuted for the abuse, which may have included coercion to abort.

Current law restricts late abortions and does not allow them to be undergone at home. This makes it more likely that women having late abortions will be screened for abuse by abortion providers, and it enables medical checks including on the stage of gestation. Laura reports that she was not only a victim of abuse but much more advanced in pregnancy than she had thought.

Home abortion can only harm women

Note, however, that as “pills by post” are now legally available up to 10 weeks’ gestation, any woman can order pills for a late abortion, claiming her pregnancy is less advanced than it is. Whatever the stage of pregnancy, there is little protection against abortion pills being covertly administered to a woman who never asked for them, or alternatively, requested by a reluctant woman with her abusive partner listening as she speaks on the phone. The abuser can then manipulate the woman throughout the process, including any remote screening for abuse that may be attempted.

Tele-abortion exacerbates violence against women by making it easier for women in abusive situations to be coerced into abortions they do not want. Nor is this just a problem with pregnancies which are beyond the current legal time-limit for home abortion.

If we want to protect a vulnerable woman like Laura, the answer is not decriminalisation, leaving her facing her abuser and the searing memory of an abortion that need never have happened. Rather, tele-abortion should be the first thing to be abolished, as a dangerous replacement for in-person human contact, while providers of abortion pills, like abusive boyfriends, should receive exemplary sentences from the courts.


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