It was recently announced that UK citizen Carla Foster would serve prison time for seeking an abortion beyond the legal limit. This has been a controversial case that has captivated both the UK and the US and has sparked a powerful movement calling for a thorough review of any archaic abortion laws. But before we delve into the numerous complexities of the event, let’s first consider the facts of the case.
The BBC reported on Monday 12 June 2023 that Foster, a 44-year-old woman and mother of three, had been found guilty of inducing an abortion after the legal limit, and had subsequently been jailed for more than two years. This in turn has ignited a national debate on the urgency for comprehensive abortion law reform.
Campaigners and activists advocating for women’s rights quickly mobilised after Foster received the 28-month-long sentence, 14 of which would be spent in custody. Foster was between 32 and 34 weeks pregnant when she took medication acquired via the “pills by post” abortion scheme that had been introduced during the COVID-19 lockdown as accessing medical care for ‘less urgent’ matters became increasingly harder. Abortion pills have gained traction over the past few years globally, particularly considering the horrifyingly restrictive abortion laws we’ve seen be implemented in both the US and across Europe.
According to the BBC, Foster had acquired the pills following a remote consultation where she was dishonest about how far along her pregnancy was. Foster’s legal team has argued that due to the lack of medical attention and information available during the COVID-19 pandemic, the mother of three had been forced to look online in order to try and resolve her situation—something that was undoubtedly an incredibly stressful situation.
The glaring disparity between the legal limit for abortions set at 24 weeks in the UK, and Foster’s gestational age between 32 and 34 weeks further exposed the limitations within the current legal framework. Foster, facing child destruction charges initially, later pleaded guilty to an offence under Section 58 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.
This antiquated law, which remains in force despite the legalislation of abortion with the Abortion Act of 1967, subjects women to penalties that include life imprisonment for using drugs or instruments to induce an abortion that is deemed unlawful.
Foster’s case resonates profoundly within the broader context of the global fight for reproductive rights, particularly in the US, where, in a number of states, abortions have been severely restricted following the controversial overturning of Roe v. Wade—in some states to such a point that people are travelling across the country in order to secure a procedure.
The parallels between the struggles faced by women on both sides of the Atlantic underscore the urgent need to safeguard reproductive rights as a fundamental aspect of gender equality and bodily autonomy.
Dame Diana Johnson, Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, called for the UK government to decriminalise abortion. Speaking to BBC Radio 4, she stated: “Removing the criminal law is a very sensible, reasonable step, but it’s not to deregulate abortion care and who can provide it.”
Before the final hearing, several women’s health organisations submitted a letter to the court advocating for a non-custodial sentence for Foster.
Judge Edward Pepperall informed the defendant that the authors of the letter expressed concerns that her imprisonment might discourage other women from accessing medical abortion services and dissuade women in later stages of pregnancy from seeking necessary medical care or being open and honest with healthcare professionals.
During the sentencing, Justice Pepperall also acknowledged that Foster had experienced “emotional turmoil” as she attempted to conceal her pregnancy, recognising her role as a devoted mother to her three sons, one of whom has special needs. Despite all of this, the judge did emphasise that it was the court’s responsibility to “apply the law as provided by Parliament.”
Unfortunately, the battle for women’s reproductive freedom is far from over. It demands a collective effort to challenge and overturn restrictive laws that deny women the right to control their own bodies. Foster’s case serves as a poignant reminder that progress cannot be taken for granted and that the fight for women’s rights must persistently continue. Lawmakers must engage in open, inclusive debates to address the urgent need for abortion law reform, prioritising women’s autonomy and safety in legislative discussions.
Furthermore, it is essential to recognise that the criminalization and imprisonment of women seeking abortions not only violates their fundamental rights but also pushes them towards unsafe alternatives.
Foster’s story serves as a stark reminder of the restrictions placed on women’s reproductive freedom. As similar battles unfold across the Atlantic, it becomes evident that the erosion of women’s rights poses a dire threat to their autonomy and access to safe medical care.