August 2022 Newsletter

Police Investigations in England and Wales of Stillbirths and Miscarriages

Some readers of the July Newsletter were surprised that abortions are not legal in England and Wales and are controlled by the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. Women experiencing stillbirths or miscarriages can still be investigated by the police on suspicion of having had an illegal abortion, e.g. by taking pills bought online or by drinking herbal remedies while unsupervised by a doctor. The police have launched dozens of such investigations over the past decade. In one 2021 case, a fifteen-year-old girl underwent a year-long criminal investigation which was only dropped after the coroner concluded her pregnancy ended due to natural causes. 

In the ten years to April 2022, the police recorded 67 cases of procuring an illegal abortion. In some cases, the accused were men or third parties accused of coercing women to have abortions. Anti-abortion groups, therefore, believe that the 1861 Act is useful in bringing abusers to justice, but reproductive rights campaigners point out that this same end could be achieved through other existing legislation (such as assault) without criminalising women. Canada, New Zealand and Australia have all decriminalised abortion so that women have autonomy to make decisions about what is right for them, and pregnancy loss is treated as a health care issue and not as a potential crime. The British Medical Association, the Royal College of Midwives, and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists have all called for abortion to be decriminalised.