Bethany Cox, charged with child destruction and using misoprostol to bring on a miscarriage in 2020, was found not guilty at Teesside Crown Court earlier in January. Cox pleaded not guilty last year, and prosecutors have now chosen to not proceed with the charges. Prosecutor Jolyon Perks stated that key evidence was missing, meaning conviction would have been difficult.
Under Section 58 of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, it is illegal for a woman to unlawfully bring about her own abortion. Cox was accused of this offence as she took abortion drugs at a point when the child could have been born alive, knowing that such drugs could terminate her pregnancy. The child was born later in the same month.
This is a separate case from that of Carla Foster, jailed for over two years last June for inducing an abortion after the legal limit. Prosecutors argued that she was aware she was over the term limit and provided incorrect information to access abortion pills during lockdown.
Both cases indicate that there are issues with current policy. Timings can be hard to prove, and intentions even harder. Overlapping legislation is complex and hard to understand, especially for those in distress. The 1967 Abortion Act, which exists alongside the 1861 Act, makes abortion legal under certain circumstances. The abortion must be conducted by a registered medical practitioner and approved by two doctors, setting a gestational limit at 23 weeks and 6 days if there is a risk of injury to the health of the pregnant woman or her existing children. There are specific grounds for abortions after 24 weeks, including a serious risk to the life of the pregnant woman.
Overlapping legislation is complex and hard to understand, especially for those in distress
During lockdown, abortion policy was amended so healthcare could be accessed remotely. Early Medical Abortion treatment is conducted using two pills. Originally, both pills had to be provided under medical supervision, creating access barriers for those who were unable to take time and travel to a clinic twice. In 2018, an amendment was made which allowed for the second pill to be taken at home under teleconsultation. The COVID-19 pandemic decreased access to traditional services, so temporary measures were introduced to allow both pills to be taken remotely. This change proved both effective and popular, so was made permanent in August 2022.
This was not uncontroversial. At the time, the government published and then retracted the changes it later implemented, aware of the criticism they would face. An evangelical group, Christian Concern, campaigned against the changes, despite medical practitioners overwhelmingly supporting the change.
In the near future, it is unlikely there will be any policy change. Abortion is a difficult topic with entrenched value-laden views on either side. It is far easier for the government to ignore it, arguing that other issues are higher up on the agenda. It is only when abortion can no longer be ignored, as was the case during lockdown, that policy will be discussed. If the government were to follow the advice of medical experts, abortion would be decriminalised and neither Bethany Cox nor Carla Foster would have faced difficult criminal trials. However, politics often governs policy more than evidence does, thus explaining the current outdated legislation on abortion.